As a longtime fan of all things Guatemalan, I was thrilled to learn that a second Guatemalan restaurant had opened in Mexicantown. (The first was the venerable El Comal.) In a neatly trimmed house just north of Vernor, painted bright yellow and green, with an ample parking lot and pansies out front, owner Carlos Argueta is serving a few Guatemalan specialties and lots of chicken, at chicken-feed prices.
When I lived in that scarred and lovely country for a couple of brief stints in the '80s and '90s, the archetypal sound, issuing from countless open doorways onto the sidewalks, was of homemade tortillas being slap-slap-slapped into shape. You could watch the women grabbing up hunks of masa (corn dough), pushing and smacking them into small circles (harder than it looks), and cooking them quickly on a huge comal, the round, flat metal griddle. A stack of these was lunch for many a laborer; if there were black beans and a chili to go with, so much the better.
And if beans and tortillas were staples for a big chunk of the population, even the well-to-do wanted their fix several times a day; the difference was that they had other items on the plate as well. I was served tortillas and puréed black beans, cooked enough to mold into an oval that holds its shape, in a household that had a cook.
Today, handmade tortillas have largely been replaced by store-bought. The hours spent slaving over a hot comal are no more. El Comal had the house-made kind on the menu for a short time when the restaurant first opened, but few people ordered them — most gringos want flour tortillas, you know, not even corn.
Now, you hoped I was going to say that Pollo Chapin takes us back to the old ways. But no. Pollo Chapin serves black beans (and also Mexican-style refried pinto beans), store-bought tortillas, and chicken, chicken, then eggs and then more chicken (100 pieces for $92). But mixed in with the wings and thighs are some typical Guatemalan delights.
Foremost among these are the tamales, which I will be ordering each time I visit ($3.75 to eat in, or $2 to go). Forget the dry, grooved cylinders that pass for tamales in some Mexican restaurants. A Guatemalan tamal is masa made with broth and lard, stuffed with pork or chicken and, sometimes, an olive too (just chicken in this case), then wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. It is moist. You must eat it with a fork. It is rich — a traditional Christmas dish.
The tamales have been selling out quickly, so in order to ensure that you get one for dinner, you might try coming on a weekend, when chef Inocencia Urizar, Argueta's mother, promises to make enough for all comers.
Outside of tamales, chicken comes in several styles: "chapin" (the nickname for Guatemalans), barbecue and milanesa (breaded cutlets). On the weekend there's "chicken in cream," and there are also chicken nuggets, on the kids' menu, and chicken soup and chicken salad.
That house-made chicken soup comes free with every meal. It has broad noodles, carrots, a rich orange-yellow broth and not a whole lot of chicken, as befitting its origins. Señora Urizar says that her recipes are family ones; when I remarked on the generosity of serving free soup, she said that because she cuts everything by hand when it's ordered, the food can be slow in coming, so customers need a sopita (little soup) to tide them over. In fact, the service is not that slow, and it's very attentive. One evening, when the kitchen was out of mac and cheese, one of 11 sides, they brought me samples of three others to taste. Sides include potato salad, mixed vegetables, egg noodles and lettuce salad.
I found the chapin chicken moist and tasty, with just the right amount of breading (it had been rather dry when the restaurant first opened, May 25, but improved). Pieces are sometimes appropriately hard to identify. The BBQ chicken is not a pretty color — kind of pink — and the spicing is tepid. And the chicken in cream is fine — lots of slightly spicy, orange sauce — but not worth making a weekend trip for.
Weekends will feature other specials, such as a milanesa de res (beef) or carne guisado for $7.49. Various huge platters of wings or assorted pieces are available to go, as are "family combos" such as three pieces for $2.65 or 10 for $7.99.
Prices are breathtakingly low — two pieces of chicken, a roll, two sides and soup for $5, for example — but if you really want to scrimp, breakfast is available any time. For $3.75 I had a delicious vegetable omelet with lots of cheese, plus ham and chopped-up wieners (!), plus black beans and rice. That moist rice, as in Guatemala, is cooked with just a few kernels of corn or peas or shreds of carrot, for visual interest.
Pollo Chapin serves from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. If you can find a better tamal or a more earnest piece of chicken anywhere, I'll eat it.
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