Not long ago, as I walked by an outdoor cafe – which will remain unnamed, I saw something that made me cringe. I noticed a young man, one who fit the profile of a tourist, staring at the plate in front of him, his right hand gripping a fork. There was doubt in his eyes, and I could almost read the thought bubble forming above his head.
He seemed to be pondering “Should I go with my innate survival instincts and throw this thing in the trash, or should I soldier on in the name of ‘cultural enlightenment’?”. For that guy’s sake, I hope that fighting his way through finishing a dry, unappealing tamale didn’t permanently convince him never to try one again. And I know that it can happen because it almost did to me.
My Initial Experience with Guatemalan Cuisine
For months after I arrived in Guatemala, you couldn’t pay me to eat a tamale – or a tortilla, for that matter. My wife, in her enthusiasm to get me to try traditional Guatemalan food, bought me tamales from a street vendor in Guatemala City– it did not go well, like the one I tried, I found to be almost inedible. “If this is what tamales are like,” I thought, “I want no part of them.” Same with the terrible tortillas she bought next door to the condo she lived at in the city.
Eventually, I gave tamales another try at a house I was staying at. Since it was Christmastime, and out of forced courtesy, I made another attempt. This time around I found them infinitely more enjoyable. A similar thing happened with corn tortillas. I learned that, unsurprisingly, they happen to taste a whole lot better when they’re fresh off the comal (grill).
Why do I share these stories? Because it would be unfortunate if you were to dismiss Guatemalan cuisine as insipid – or even gross – based on a bad experience with a street vendor, or at one of the well-known típico (traditional) restaurants in town. This happened to a friend who tried Pepián, a type of Guatemalan beef stew, at one of the pricey típico restaurants, only to end up highly disappointed in the experience. I’m sure Bill Clinton isn’t dying to come back there to eat Pepián, or tamales if his experience was anything like my friend’s.
Los Tres Tiempos, a New Tipico Restaurant in Antigua
Now, that isn’t to say you’ll have a bad meal at one of these fancy restaurants. I’ve heard great things about the food at Los Tres Tiempos (5th Avenida Norte #31). The decor is beautiful and one of my favorite of all restaurants in Antigua.
One advantage of traditional restaurants that cater to tourists is that you’ll probably enjoy higher standards of cleanliness from their kitchens – though I wouldn’t necessarily bet my money on it. If you’re a tourist that hasn’t weaned yourself from the “I must eat at a restaurant chain” mindset, you’ll probably recoil at some of the places I’ve eaten at. But if you’ve been here for any decent length of time, and provided your stomach has developed the requisite bug-resistance, your experience with Guatemalan cuisine will be far more enjoyable elsewhere.
Something that does bug me a bit is what I consider the price gouging that goes on at some of these places. Sure, to a tourist, the difference between eating authentic Guatemalan dishes and warmed over, mass-produced “authentic” meals might be $1USD of $2USD per dish. But it’s a pet-peeve nonetheless. Traditional Guatemalan food isn’t supposed to be expensive. And the secret is that the best places to try the best dishes aren’t. You’ll be gouged for $10 for a Guatemalan taco at Casa Santo Domingo that can be had on a street corner of 5Q ($0.60) – I’m not exagerating in the least.
Ingredients for traditional Guatemalan dishes are often quite simple, inexpensive and readily available. Paying through the nose for a tamal at a restaurant seems obscene – to me at least, considering the going rate locals pay for an outstanding tamal is about Q5. In fact, the best tamales I’ve had to date are made by a grandmother near where we live, in small batches, and sold at a table she sets up in front of her home. Cost? Just Q3 each. Take a look at one below.
Same with chuchitos, which are slightly similar to tamales, and which we buy at Q2.50 each. I saw a local típico restaurant advertising them for Q10 each, minimum order of two. Want to try a tamal? That’ll be Q30+ for you Mr. Gringo. Can’t say I blame them, though. Retail space in Antigua – especially on Arco Street – is mighty expensive.
Where to Get Great, Authentic Guatemalan Food
So how can you find great, homemade tamales, or Guatemalan cuisine and not get ripped off in the process? Like anything else. Ask the locals.
For example, most locals will tell you that the best, most authentic Guatemalan dishes can be found at the small comedores near San Felipe, a town about five minutes north of Antigua. In fact, go any given Saturday, and you’ll see the parking lot in front of San Felipe Church (below) stacked with very expensive-looking SUVs. These are driven by nicely-dressed people from Guatemala City, who’ve made the trek here (more than an hour long, mind you) just to enjoy a true atol de maiz (corn-based drink) and other treats. Sitting on plastic benches, at tables adorned with plastic liners is part of the experience.
There are plenty of good places to eat food here, around the church, and in the back of the market across the street. Look for Comedor San Felipe, the humble restaurant belonging to “La Negrita” (the Little Black Lady), as she’s known locally. Good Guatemalan food cooked over wood.
San Felipe Church – Come here on Saturdays
Finding Good Tamales in Antigua
There’s an easy way to find homemade tamales – usually sold only on Saturdays. Look for a red Chinese-type lantern hanging by the front door, which is an invitation to knock and ask for tamales. If there are tamales available for sale, the lamp will be on. Feel free to knock on the door at that time.
Also, don’t forget to pick up a fila de Frances (row of French bread), which is the side dish, or sliced bread. According to my wife, coffee, or even hot chocolate, is the appropriate accompanying beverage, though, at Christmastime, the traditional drink to pair with tamales will be ponche, a hot, pineapple-based drink. So far, coke-type soft drinks have worked well for me.
There are a few places I can personally recommend to get great tamales. If buying tamales for lunch, head to San Antonio Bakery – the one by 4ta Calle Oriente, about a block away from the entrance to Antigua where the cobblestone streets begin. Get there by 11 AM. They have chicken and pork tamales of the colorado variety (the most common one, which is covered with a red tomato-based sauce known as recado).
If for dinner, head to the painted gree on 6a Calle Poniente #62, a few steps away from Calzada Santa Lucia. The grandmotherly lady starts selling them at 4 PM.
I love the paches and tamales (both red and the harder to find sweet black tamales) from Doña Chuz. She’s been selling them for years at the corner of 1a Calle Poniente and 7a Avenida Norte.
If on the other side of Antigua, head to the small comedor on 1st Avenida Norte, between 1st Calle Oriente and 2da Calle Oriente. They have great tamales available every Saturday, plus other tipico eats.
Homemade Tamales in Antigua
If you’re looking for a sit-down experience and don’t want to make the 5-minute trip to San Felipe, Cafe Tonita (1a Calle Poniente #22) is a good option. You can also try dishes like revolcado (pig brain stew). La Canche (6a Avenida Norte #42, has good pepian.
Cafe Tonita – Brain stew anyone?
Expect to pay a bit more here, but nowhere near what you’ll pay at the white-tablecloth places and possible orders of magnitude better food.
More typical food here: https://www.okantigua.com/guatemalan-food-and-dishes/
What are your favorite places to eat
homemade Guatemalan food?