Sure, there are plenty of Guatemalan dishes on the menu at Queens’ Tierras Centroamericanas. And you’ll also find grocery stores in Dyker Heights and Bath Beach, Brooklyn that have cleared away space for a table or two and started serving the meal-size soups of the Central American nation.
But Luna de Xelaju remains the only full-blown Guatemalan restaurant that I know of in the five boroughs. “Xelaju” is the modern name for the Mayan city Quetzaltenango, now Guatemala’s second largest.
Located on Parsons Boulevard in downtown Jamaica not far from the F train, it evolved from a pizzeria. The pizza sign remains outside, as do the pizza ovens behind a counter stacked with glass cases, filled with Guatemalan baked goods — most prominently champurradas: round, crusty, sesame-seeded sweet breads baked in the pizza ovens. The deep and narrow interior features framed pictures of visiting Guatemalan dignitaries and a colorful mural of a mountain village.
On a Sunday afternoon, two friends and I set about ordering some of the most interesting and tasty Guatemalan dishes from a gatefold menu with over 100 choices, including typical breakfasts featuring eggs, refried black beans, bouncy white cheese, and freshly made corn tortillas much thicker and smaller than the Mexican ones. Other menu sections offered seafood, soups, hamburgers, and dinner and lunch specials, plus a large selection of antojitos — masa-based snacks or small bites. Oh, and the pizzas.
In Guatemala, the tamal can take many forms, some of which, wrapped in banana leaves, are square and the size of dinner plates. The tamales de chipilin (two for $5) are named for a scraggly leaf popular since Mayan times, a cousin of spinach with the incredible English name, “longbeak rattlebox.” The leaf and stems lend a slightly citric taste and the pair of tamales arrived further drenched in chirmol, a mild tomato sauce.
Perhaps more amazing was pacayas forradas ($7.99), the yellowish fruit that hangs below the fronds of the date palm, battered and fried like tempura. On the plate it looks something like a yellow rag mop. The flavor is artichoke-like, with a bitter finish. While we didn’t love it, it was wonderful to be eating something none of us had tried before.
Our favorite dish of the afternoon was salpicon ($9.99), a cold salad of shredded beef tossed with chopped onion and radish, flavored with cilantro, and sluiced with plenty of lime juice, reminiscent of a Thai larb. It was utterly refreshing. Like the other main courses we ordered, salpicon came with fluffy white rice and pureed black beans, along with a basket of warm, thick tortillas.
Those who love variety meats will want to try revolcado ($11.99). This brick-red stew is traditionally made with meat from the pig’s head along with its entrails that tastes something like chili con carne without the cumin. From the ceramic bowl we could pick out pieces of skin and intestine, and cubes of heart, liver, and kidney. The revolcado was so rich that a bowl could be shared by three.
“Sure beats pizza,” said one of my companions. We walked out to the street and looked back at that sign.