Guatemalans have been much on my mind lately and much in the news. The account of a May 12 ICE raid on a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, written by FIU professor and Spanish translator Erik Camayd-Freixas, is making its way around the net. Camayd-Freixas was hired as a translator after the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bust, and the normally unflappable professor ("I am not the impressionable kind," he says at one point) was shaken by the spectacle of weeping Mayan workers, "mostly illiterate Guatemalan peasants," shackled together and facing criminal charges of "aggravated identity theft" and "Social Security fraud." The workers were given a terrible choice of pleas — prison time plus deportation or longer prison time plus deportation — on charges they couldn't fully comprehend before being hauled off to jail. That day, the Town of Postville, Camayd-Freixas says, lost a third of its population, including schoolchildren. "Businesses were empty, amid looming concerns that if the plant closed it would become a ghost town."
The town I live in, Lake Worth, would feel like a ghost town too without the 19,000 or so Guatemalans who live in the county, working mostly in construction, agriculture, and domestic services. I was just back from a trip to Guatemala myself, where the variety of meat, fruit, and vegetables displayed in boxes and baskets on every street corner or cobbled-together marketplace, balanced on the heads of Mayan women carrying trays and buckets, was mind-boggling — but also laced with bitter irony. Because of the climate and the soil, everything grows at once in Guatemala: What's seasonal and regional for us, produce like apples, broccoli, cabbage, pineapple, peppers, tomatoes, macadamia nuts, coffee, and mangoes, flourishes practically year 'round. You see what looks like a fertile, paradisal cornucopia, and yet the countryside is so poor. People are hungry. And even as recently as last May, union activists helping organize agricultural workers on Del Monte banana plantations were being assassinated. Guatemala is a gorgeous country of heartbreaking poverty and absurd wealth; life for the native peasants can be nasty, brutish, and short — and the powers-that-be have long been devoted to viciously keeping it that way.
I wanted to find an authentic restaurant or two serving the "típico" dishes I'd tried in Guatemala — the palm-sized, thick tortillas and salty beans; the rough, homemade cream cheese; chuchitos stuffed with meat; the gently spiced chicken in tomato sauces. It turned out that one, El Chapín, was right in my backyard on Congress Avenue in Palm Springs. Another, La Rosa, was in walking distance on Lucerne Avenue.
La Rosa, a sparkling-clean little cubbyhole with a half-dozen tables, opened six months ago, and it's actually owned by a Mexican family. But the cook is Guatemalan. Most days, the family's son, a plump, sweet-natured boy who looks about 12 or 13, takes orders from their small menu. You might call the fare at La Rosa Guate-Mex — the big burritos stuffed with rice, refried or black beans, and a choice of beef, pork, or chicken and salsa are all California Mexican, but the pint-sized, handmade tortillas, cooked to order, are pure Guatemalan. All the meats served at La Rosa are naturally raised and, in the case of the chicken, vegetarian-fed. A choice of vegetarian (guacamole, vegetarian black beans, sautéed peppers, onions), barbacoa (shredded beef braised with chipotle adobo, cumin, cloves, garlic, and oregano), carnitas (marinated grilled steak with adobo), or chicken (chipotle pepper) can be stuffed into burritos, served plain in a bowl, piled onto soft flour or corn tortillas or served with salad, each for $5.50. Salsas — roasted chili/corn, tomatillo/green chili, tomatillo/red chili, or fresh tomato — can be mixed and matched.
The guacamole and chips at La Rosa ($2.25) are the best I've had anywhere — including at the upscale Mex places that turn it out tableside — and, at that price, a ridiculous bargain. The handmade corn chips come out warm and crisp, broken into eight-inch pieces from what was evidently a giant tortilla; the guac is chunky, piquant, and full of lime. I could absolutely live on this stuff. Pile it on a chip, give it a few shakes from the squeeze bottle of fresh green chili/tomatillo sauce, and you are in heaven.
Every bite we ate at La Rosa tasted spanking fresh — and because it's made to order, you may have to let go any illusions of "fast" food. The barbacoa, piled onto a soft little tortilla with lettuce, chopped tomato, and onion, was fully infused with garlic and adobo but on the dry side — easily remedied with a few scoops of sour cream. Tortillas served as veggie fajitas with sautéed peppers and onions ran with yummy juices; a seasoned pork taco was delicately spiced, and the meat was tender. These are mildly difficult to handle because of the pliant and moist little tortillas — they don't quite wrap.
El Chapín, named for the slang term Guatemalans call themselves, is a very different kettle of cocida. This pretty room is dressed floor to ceiling in Guatemalan textiles, pottery, and paintings — with its intricately tiled bar and floor and carved wooden doors, it looks like it was airlifted straight from Antigua. So authentic is it, in fact, that you'll have a tough time communicating in English (although the menu provides a translation). Typical dishes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks include a "chapín style" breakfast of eggs, pork, sausage, bacon, black beans, plantains, and sour cream ($6.25), or "El Chapín oatmeal" ($3.75) with sweet milk and cinnamon. El Chapín serves some wonderful snacks — we particularly loved rellenitos de plátano ($3.99), mashed sweet plantains wrapped around a filling of savory black beans, fried crisp, and rolled in sugar, served with a slightly sweet sour cream; and the terrific chicken-filled tamales de carne ($3.99), pockets of immensely satisfying, creamy cornmeal with spiced chicken. I spooned red chili sauce liberally into these from a pot on the table, a tasty concoction of roasted tomatoes with lots of cilantro and chopped onion. We were too full to go for the chuchitos ($3.50) after this, but those, along with tostadas, paches (meat-stuffed potato dumplings), and fried tacos make up a liberal menu of small plates that promise future deliciousness.
The bigger lunch dishes are hit-and-miss. I didn't much care for a rather dry carne adobada of "pickled" pork meat served in long, orange-hued, unappetizing strips ($7.95), but I sure liked everything that came with it: excellent black beans, perfectly seasoned; a covered dish of freshly made mini-tortillas; sweet plantains oozing sugary oils, and more of that fabulous salsa. We tried the grilled pork chop ($7.95) as well, served with rice, pico de gallo, and a disappointingly bland and runny guacamole, and I thought the meat had a lot more life to it, or at least a lot more juice.
A café con leche (they have an espresso machine) wouldn't win any contests against its Cuban cousin — as in Guatemala, the coffee is served weak. But it's authentically weak!
I'm looking forward to trying El Chapín's cocido de res or caldo de gallina (a meal-sized bowl of beef or chicken soup served with tortillas, $9.95) or maybe even the "chomin" ($10.50). Like the Peruvians, Guates have adopted and adapted Chinese cooking — the chomin, it turns out, is a chow mein of mixed vegetables, meat, and soy sauce.
I'd definitely go back to this charming place — so shady and cool on a late afternoon — if just for a cup of sweet, weak coffee or a bottle of Gallo beer and another plate of those tamales. And because it's so close, I can walk it off afterward.