For the last few years, Gotham’s typical Guatemalan dining establishment has been a bodega in Bensonhurst or Jamaica with the grocery shelves in back pushed aside, and a table or two set down, with usually a couple of soups, and sometimes some stews, available. The menus are often wonderful in their small scope, but those who may have been first exposed to Guatemalen cuisine as tourists or, in my case, in Copeland Marks’s epic cookbook False Tongues and Sunday Bread — will greet the appearance of Claudia’s with delight.
This new bistro in East Williamsburg is owned by neighborhood veterans Claudia and Mario Lopez, the latter acting as executive chef. The couple previously operated C. Lo’s in the same storefront, a coffee shop and lunchroom that offered a few masa-based Guatemalan dishes. Now the menu has been expanded and cocktails added.
On Bushwick Avenue two blocks south of Metropolitan, in an area rapidly populating with restaurants and night spots, Claudia’s offers a breezy dining room and a full bar with a view of the street. On one wall a vivid mural of a Guatemalan village is limned in bright shades of purple and orange, and woven fabrics cover chairs and banquettes.
Many of the breakfast and luncheon dishes from C. Lo’s menu remain, including the luscious and substantially sized mama’s tamal ($6) made with pork, chicken, or beef. It arrives poking out of the banana leaf in which it was steamed. A fried egg, small roll, and pickled purple onions accompany it. Cut into the tamal and find it studded with green olives, imparting a sharp and salty tang to the mellow masa.
You can imagine my delight when I ordered the tortillas montadas ($10), which is the Guatemalan equivalent of Mexican tacos, and found what was inside. A pair of tortillas, which were a little thicker than Mexican ones, came smeared with smashed avocados and topped with perfect barbecued beef brisket, grainy and smoky. Does this represent Guatemalan-Texas fusion? If so — bring it on! Other versions of these “mounted” tortillas feature carnitas and vegetables.
Typical egg dishes also enliven the morning and afternoon menu, and the brunch menu, too, including a Guatemalan traditional breakfast of scrambled eggs, black beans, sweet plantain, and crema. The one a friend and I tried at brunch was huevos antigua ($13), a pair of fried eggs plopped on top of creamy masa, sprinkled with crunchy chicharron. An intriguing salsa of tomatoes, lime juice, and chiles — scattered in little wads — added sharp flavor. It’s called chirmol, which is Mayan for “runny nose,” handily describing its otolaryngological properties. Really, this is one of Williamsburg’s best brunch dishes.
But go at dinnertime, when the blue neon in the window that reads Claudia’s comes on, the lights go down in the café (perhaps a little too much), and more Guatemalan classic dishes fly onto the menu. The best we tried was hilachas ($14), a stew of shredded beef like Cuban ropa vieja with a roasted tomato sauce that made the beef taste richer, served with both rice and tortillas.
Some say that the national dish of Guatemala should be pepian de gallina ($14), a spicy stew of long-simmered hen. The sauce is composed of ground pumpkin seeds, tomatoes, and tomatillos, the latter adding tartness to the broth. Here, the pepian was not too thick, though likable nonetheless, but it was blander than I would have preferred. It begged for some chiles.
The dinner menu also offers a couple of salads (one featuring beets, another chickpeas), a cheeseburger, and a bowl of the carnitas (little fried pork tidbits common to Mexican and Guatemalan cuisines) dressed with the green Argentine relish called chimichurri, a dish that handily spans cultures.
There’s also a fried chicken sandwich called campero sandwich, which features lettuce, tomato, and mayo. On the weekend brunch menu the filling comes topped with a fried egg, but I’d recommend requesting one be put on top at other times, for an extra 50 cents. Claudia’s was one of the better chicken sandwiches I’ve tried lately, and gee, you can’t get an egg on top at Popeye’s, can you?
There are a handful of desserts, and a fairly long list of alcoholic beverages, including some nifty mixed drinks. My dining companion preferred the coconut cartel ($12), a coconut-rum based drink with rice milk and horchata. I liked the Ilegal bearded Manhattan ($13), which contained the namesake misspelled mezcal, plus bourbon and bitters, with enough alcohol that you won’t really need another drink during your meal.
Hopefully, Claudia’s will spawn more Guatemalan restaurants. Because, examining Copeland Marks’s cookbook, I can see we still have plenty of amazing recipes to go for a full perspective on Guatemalan food. 39 Bushwick Ave, between Devoe and Ainslie streets, Williamsburg