Antigua, Guatemala is a small city with a big culinary scene. This Central American hub for travelers, students and ex-pats is packed with eateries, but it’s not as easy as it may seem to seek out local flavor. This is an International food town. Spread over just eleven square blocks, Antigua serves up a global variety of plates, from Indian to Thai to Moroccan, with plenty of Italian to go around.
Before arriving in Guatemala, a friend of mine put me in touch with George, an ex-pat (and ex-New Yorker) who runs a boutique tour outfit, George’s Travel Club, out of Antigua. As soon as I arrived, I gave George a call asking for a delicious local recommendation. The first thing out of his mouth? “If you like sushi, there’s a great Asian-Latin fusion place right by you.” Sushi? I had something a little more…Guatemalan in mind. With George’s help, I found my way to the famous La Fonda de la Calle Real, but realized I’d have to do some digging to find true local gems in a town leaning more toward pizza than plantains.
One way to find great regional cuisine is by going directly to the source. Follow the foodies. I met with Désirée and Lio who run Degusta Antigua, the city’s definitive online restaurant guide. We sat down to talk food at the grand re-opening party of Cafe Opera, one of the hottest Italian restaurants in town. They marked up my map, and I followed their advice to three of the area’s best local establishments.
Close to the Arch of Santa Catalina, on the north end of 4th Avenue, Dn Martin is one of Antigua’s historical dining establishments. Over the years, the restaurant has served dignitaries, celebrities and tourists alike. The interior decor is formal by Guatemalan standards, but the restaurant’s owner, Ronald, is warm and welcoming to visitors, creating a relaxed, homey environment.
The restaurant has two menus: typical and international. Rather than study the menu, I consulted Ronald himself. I wanted to explore the best traditional flavors through Dn Martin’s signature dishes. Plus, word on the street was that the restaurant turned out the city’s best version of something called “subanik”.
We began with a bright yellow, rich and creamy tortilla soup. This was followed by a seasonal dish – a green mango salad. Just like I’d observed at the local market, the slighty sour green mangos were topped with a ground pumpkin seed powder.
The reason to dine at Dn Martin is for their subanik. This pepper and tomato-based ceremonial dish originates from the Kaqchiquel Maya. Subanik is normally reserved for special occasions like weddings. The chicken stew is prepared with multiple varieties of pepper, both fresh and dried, resulting in deep flavors and a spicy kick.
La Cuevita de los Urquizú
This cafeteria-style restaurant is a foodie’s fantasy. It’s the kind of place where you either need to show up with ten friends, or come back to eat ten times in order to try everything available, because it all looks amazing. What you see is what you get. The daily selection (all typical Guatemalan stews) ranges from chicken or pork stew, to the more exotic tripe and tongue specials. You can sample any or everything before settling on your main dish – then the process becomes even more difficult. Each main dish comes with a selection of two sides.
Giant bowls of salads, salsas and other sides are spread across the front counter. The radish salad and refried beans were calling my name. The giant cheese pupusas I ordered from the kitchen were almost an involuntary afterthought. I couldn’t help myself.
Below: Pork stew, refried beans and radish salad with a cornmeal tamal.
Located in nearby San Felipe de Jesús, getting to El Prado requires a taxi or a bit of an adventurous spirit. For an authentic experience, you can hail a local bus (also referred to as a chicken bus) from Antigua to the suburb of San Jose, and walk ten minutes to the neighboring village of San Felipe.
El Prado is easy to locate, just off of the main square next to the town’s ornate colonial-style church. As you pass through the restaurant’s main gates, it feels as though you’re stepping into another world. A lush, landscaped courtyard is lined by the restaurant’s wooden tables and benches.
The menu is exclusively in Spanish, always a good sign. I ordered the chicken Adobado, a marinated, grilled chicken breast smothered with a thick chili rub. It was served with all of the traditional accompaniments: rice, refried beans, guacamole and plantain. Other notable dishes on the menu include a trio of farmer’s sausages, grilled beef skewers, and a homemade chicken soup only available on weekends.
Dn Martin is located at: 4 Avenida Norte No. 27
La Cuevita de los Urquizú is located at: 2a Calle Oriente No. 9D
El Prado is located at: Aldea Sn. Felipe de Jesús, No. 35
Visit Degusta Antigua online at http://www.degustantigua.com
2010 Mileage Total: 104017