Shoestring Budget Dining in Guatemala: An Essay on Central American Adventure Dining Experience
Guatemala’s sidewalk hawkers or ambulantes do not offer wide-ranging mouth-watering pickings as their counterparts in Bangkok or Hong Kong where one lazily strolls along a series of stalls in the morning with an empty gut and emerges out full by noon. There is just no comparison. Nevertheless, its visual display is inviting for both the hungry and the curious. The need to eke out a living for many is an incentive to endless creativity.
Advertising marvels give final touch to tropical fruits’ irresistibility. Hydrating chunks in their luridness, especially mangoes, pineapples, and watermelons, and even cucumbers and radishes are carved up in attractive ways, slipped in clear plastic bag, or skewered and displayed in array on carts and ready to go.
Early morning breakfast is an exploratory experience when majority of cooks are yet to wind-up their nocturnal dreams. Nothing is faster and dependable than McD’s, ubiquitous and always open for business at the crack of dawn.
Avoiding it as much as possible, I’m pained to see the world turned bland and boring by multinational hegemony.
Before I knew it, I was sheltered in its warm comforting walls, staring glumly at a featured photo-menu showing a burrito the size of Incredible Hulk’s bicep. Reality sunk-in when the tray unraveled a burrito the size of his pinkie matched with a miniature cup of orange juice at a whopping promo price of $US3.00.
The abundance of napkins and a clean toilet are a relief. Guatemala generally has napkin-scarce comedores with a strict allotment of two one-ply pieces per customer.
Best thing about comedor dining regardless of class is eating with china, silver, and glass making a satisfying experience and keeping one’s dignity intact. I believe that eating should satisfy every sensory organ. The feel and sound of this threesome as they collide with each other or against the teeth versus the squeaky styrofoam and plastic, give a consummate feeling no matter how whimsical, and warm fuzzy feel fast-food outlets may imbibe.
Antigua has plentiful of affordable decent comedores. I picked out as my official restaurant small and struggling Casa Canela, at Calle 6a between Calle Santa Lucia & Ave. 7a, very homely and lofty with a tall door and solitary window protected by a wrought iron cage. A flimsy curtain from a swath of cotton fabric screened the kitchen from the dining room containing six heavy elegant dark wood tables with their matching chairs and an old cupboard. By the sheer number of tables, one can deduce the small quantity of patrons it serves. This place is cozy. Jobs are juggled between the waiter who is also the bus boy, cashier, and owner, and a cook. The “Menu of the Day” is written on small chalkboard on a tilted tripod in front of the door, giving a quaint Old World European feel. Service is courteous and not annoying, the bashful Protestant waiter-owner always at a comfortable distance.
This time, I avoided a rerun of the Mexican experience. The only choice pervasively in northern Mexico is limited to a dizzying option of tacos, tacos, and tacos. Mexicans may only serve a set dish with the utmost three-spoonfuls of rice. Who cares about the nuances of an Asian traveler? I withered close to starvation until I reached Chiapas and Yucatan and felt relieved that it shared with Philippine food, my mother palate.
As an urbanite growing in the Philippines, I’m no stranger to cultural food ethos. Admittedly, I’m an ethno-omnivore except for one indispensable staple – rice. Without it, I felt empty and weak especially during this heavy traveling activity.
If I can’t sustain myself on Guatemalan food, Chinese restaurants abound. Landing in Guatemala City, I was thankful to see pockets of Chinatown. It turned out that Guatemalan food is even OK having some affinity with Philippine cuisine, the connection is untraceable but both share the same tropical latitude and Spanish heritage, simply put.
Lunch is a typical meal of comfort food with a dash of fine dining. A course consists of the main dish of meat with generous vegetable salad or most of the time smashed avocado, and of course, rice accompanied with warm tortillas in their usual meager wrapping. I was introduced to Pepian and Jocon, all chicken in thick gravy, never spicy, nor fishy, nor greasy, instantly becoming my favorites. Always, it’s finished off with a towering glass of lemon or orange juice included in the price of roughly $US3.00. Additional rice can be requested without extra cost. Beer is cheap.
Campero is a Guatemalan chain that can give Kentucky a serious run for its money. Established 30 years ago, sporting the same American concept with crunchy chicken as its flagship item, it’s one reason Guatemalan-Americans would burst out of the plane as soon as it lands. Returning back, they would bring in piles of lunch boxes, permeating the plane with spicy fragrance. Much the same way as they serve in the US, a set menu comes with chicken which goes with cole slaw salad and fries or as Guatemalans call it papas fritas, rather than papas ala francesca, otherwise they don’t know what it is.