When Guatemalan restaurants started appearing in numbers a decade ago, they mainly took the form of bodegas selling Central American goods in neighborhoods like Dyker Heights, Sunset Park, and downtown Jamaica. As some Mexican shopkeepers had done before them, the proprietors would push a table or two into the back of their shops and serve prepared foods. In the case of many Guatemalan-owned stores, it was meal-sized soups. Now, a pair of sisters have opened three restaurants on a single Brooklyn block in Prospect Lefferts Gardens highlighting the cuisines of both Guatemala and Mexico, with soups again being a big draw.
Ix (pronounced “eesh”), referring to a Mayan goddess, started out on a short block of Lincoln Road not far from Prospect Park. It was founded late in 2017 by sisters Brenda Castellanos and Ana Prince, who grew up in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. The small space, with serpentine seating inside and out, is decorated with a painting of a jaguar and a Mayan temple at Tikal, the ruins of an ancient city. As the Guatemalen bodegas had done before them, the menu focuses on eight typical soups. The menu also adds an international collection of breakfasts, sandwiches, and salads — with Korean, French, and health-food flourishes here and there.
But it was the soups ($13 to $15 each) that attracted me like a magnet, each dramatic in its own way. Caldo de chipilin refers to a green leafy vegetable native to Central America used in soups and tamales, named longbeak rattlebox in English. When cooked, it develops a slightly sour flavor, and the leaf is also rich in iron.
As the star ingredient of the soup, chipilin develops a slippery texture, here immersed in chicken broth with rice and shrimp. I loved it. My second favorite soup was pepian. Like the mole of the same name in Oaxaca, Puebla, and Guerrero, this soup is fortified with ground pumpkin seeds and achiote paste for a brick red color and the earthiest of flavors. Tasting of cumin and cinnamon, it boasts a trio of chiles. I also took a shine to caldo de aji amarillo, an intensely yellow potage colored with aji chiles and served with blue corn tortilla chips, making a designer color combination (dump the chips in the soup).
None of these soups are particularly spicy, nor had they been when I first tasted them at the bodegas years ago. Though good, there’s nothing much remarkable about the salads and sandwiches at Ix. A satisfying Cubano is made along classic lines, in addition to a less-common “TPC,” featuring turkey, peanut butter, and coconut, which I didn’t try. Then there’s a caprese croissant that is exactly what you’d expect — perfect brunch fare, though not particularly Guatemalan.
A further nod to the subcontinent’s Mayan heritage is a roster of 10 hot cocoas ($5 to $6). The best of the ones I’ve tried laces the beverage with almonds and cinnamon, the slivered nuts afloat and the top frothy; while another features fresh ginger with cayenne, both ingredients ramping up the wake-me-up potential. The most fundamental cocoa is aguado, a simple beverage of ground cocoa and sugar dissolved in hot water without the mellowing effect of dairy. It was more the way the Mayans drank it: as a bitter beverage, like coffee.
The sisters behind Ix own two further restaurants, clustered on the same short block of Lincoln Road, making for a fascinating micro-campus of restaurants. Right next to Ix is Taqueria El Patron, which describes itself as a Mexican grill. Founded two years before Ix opened as the first of the collection, replacing an earlier Mexican restaurant where one of the sisters once waited tables, it specializes in Mexican-American fare, which diners can wash down with strong cocktails, in the style of the places sometimes disparagingly called margarita mills. The food at El Patron is much better than that term suggests. A portrait of Frida Kahlo hangs just inside the front door, and a fusty barroom that looks decades-old parallels a capacious dining room, making for a humongous amount of space when the outdoor seating is added.
One can get a combination plate of taco and enchilada, any number of fajita manifestations, and dozens of bursting-at-the-seams big burritos. One called el gigante requires two flour tortillas to contain it, and who could resist the El Patron burrito ($16), which appears at your table like some sort of flying dough creature, where a pair of strategically placed tortilla chips appear to give it wings? Inside, it contains beefsteak, black beans, and other ingredients topped with pork gravy and oodles of melted cheese. Another favorite was the taco supreme ($5). With its name and ground beef filling, it seemed to be channeling Taco Bell, only more opulently.
The third establishment is the most recent. Founded in 2019, Antojitos del Patron Mexican Snacks is a small cafe intended as a simple taqueria. The inside centers on a lively counter, and a pink pig piñata hangs from the ceiling in a small dining area. The menu here only requires a quick scan, as it’s mainly confined to tacos, tortas, tamales, and quesadillas with predictable fillings, similar to the town’s Pueblan taquerias. Menu highlights include one of the best red pozoles in town ($12), its rich broth laced with dried chiles, chickpeas, and shredded chicken, packing a prodigious burn.
Another specialty is a Oaxacan-style tamale steamed in a banana leaf ($5). It treats the dish as a main course rather than a snack or breakfast item, with a big loaf of masa smothered in a chunky pork gravy.
After several visits to Lincoln Road, I found myself never visiting only one restaurant at a time. It’s too convenient to hop from place to place, enjoying a favorite selection or two at each restaurant along with a cup of hot cocoa, neon Jarritos soda, or salt-rimmed cocktail. All of the restaurants are worth multiple visits, and all are different in their combined Guatemalan and Mexican outlooks. Take an afternoon or evening, and hit two or three, and don’t miss the Oaxacan tamal, caldo de chipilin, or any of the hot cocoas.