The Gathering: Guatemalteca's Newest Snack and Chat
View more photos of Guatemalteca pastries in the "Pastry Gazing at Guatemalteca" slideshow.
If you’ve driven down Beverly Boulevard in the last 30 years, you may have noticed the line that forms outside Guatemalteca on weekends, a queue that wiggles past the bootleg tamale vendors, the CD vendors and the guys selling DVDs of action movies that sometimes make it to the blankets before the coming attractions hit the theaters.
The day before a holiday, you could wait in that line for an hour and not come much closer to a bag of Guatemalan tamales, a vat of Guatemalan tripe soup or a tray of the totally compelling cheese-enriched Guatemalan poundcakes called quesadillas, which are probably dense enough to use as sandbags the next time the Los Angeles River threatens to flood. (The bakery is at the bottom of a small depression in the landscape, a geological trough I have often speculated was caused by the sheer weight of those quesadillas.) Guatemalteca’s soft white roll, perujo, is probably still the best Central American bread in Los Angeles.
There are fancier Guatemalan establishments in town, and plenty of nearby cafés that specialize in chapines, a term for Guatemalan snacks that is also Guatemalans’ affectionate term for their countrymen, but Guatemalteca Bakery has always seemed like the locus of Guatemalan-American life in central Los Angeles, the place to come to pick up a newspaper, buy a bottle of Guatemalan chile sauce or a sack of frozen Guatemalan plums, and maybe stick around for a chapin or two from the lunch counter. It was cramped, more than a little worn around the edges, but if you were in the mood for the tamales called chuchitos, or fried bananas with refried black beans and crema, it is where you went.
Now there is the new Guatemalteca, a relatively vast establishment a block or two from the Vermont MTA station, a sprawling space with a dining area at one end, a small market at the other and a long glass counter separated into a bakery area and a hot food area, cooks stumbling from the kitchen with steaming pots of beans, chicken in cream sauce or the tomato-laced beef stew hilacha, which seem to be served almost as soon as they are put into the steam table. The continuous loop of marimba music, innocuous enough when you first enter the restaurant, will take over your brain after a quarter hour or so, bouncing between cortexes in a tropical game of Pong, and emerging in your thoughts for days afterward in a musical equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Guatemalan cooking, at least in theory, is a rich, complex cuisine, thick with spices and earthy resonances, toasted seeds and pungent wild greens. Guatemalan cooking as practiced at Guatemalteca, at least the chapines, is probably the local equivalent of fast food, the stuff you cram down when you have 15 minutes for lunch or you happen to be hungry after band practice at school, tasty food that happens to run about half the cost of meal at Burger King. Steam-table meals include the pounded-seed meat stew pepian; fried chicken; the organ-meat concoction revolcado or a tart version of a stewed-beef carne guisada, all served on ridged foam plates with rice, black beans and a roll. (My favorite steam-table dish here, soupy red beans cooked with gooey slabs of pork skin, is also served with the frijoles — apparently Guatemalteca doesn’t consider beans with beans a redundancy.)
The scarlet nests arranged in bloody rows behind the counter are enchiladas, crisp tortillas heaped with beans, cream and a vivid mixture of beets and beet-stained cabbage, topped with a slice of a hard-boiled egg; the tostadas are simpler things, fried tortillas smeared with beans and sprinkled with a bit of grated cheese. The soft, moist tamales are steamed in banana leaves; what you might think of as tamales, wrapped in corn husks and stuffed with saucy chunks of pork, are called chuchitos. There are puffy, eggy chiles rellenos stuffed with ground meat and an odd sweet that consists of a roll fried in the chile relleno batter and served in a raisin-spiked syrup. Sandwiches include spicy pan con chile, and the elusive pan con chao mein, which is, as it sounds, a split roll filled with fried Chinese-style noodles, as carb-intensive a dish as anything on earth.
Which leads up to a tour past the pastry counter, a quesadilla or two, a cream-filled whatever, and a slice of the house bread pudding, a weighty, delicious sweet, seasoned with a dash of salt, that ranks with bread puddings in New Orleans and rural Catalonia among the best I’ve ever had.
Guatemalteca: Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No alcohol. Takeout and bakery. Limited lot parking in rear. MC, V, with $10 minimum. Lunch for two, food only, $7-$14. Recommended dishes: chuchitos, enchiladas and frijoles colorado with chicharrones. Recommended pastries: quesadillas and bread pudding.
4770 W. Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (323) 663-8307.
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