When UNC Charlotte religious studies professor Eric Hoenes suggests an eating adventure, it’s smart to say yes. Especially if Central American food is on the menu, since Hoenes hails from Guatemala.
We met fellow UNC Charlotte professor Nicole Peterson and started at Panaderia El Quetzal on Eastway Drive near Garinger High School. The bright green and red quetzal bird is a national symbol of Guatemala. And “panaderia” means bakery. Sure enough, we were soon filling paper sacks with Guatemalan pastries. My favorite: thin, crispy sugar cookies called champurradas.
The bakery’s co-owner had just opened a restaurant, announced a wall banner. Off we sped up The Plaza, where we found Guate-Linda – Guatemala the beautiful – with half a dozen tidy tables and an eight-page picture menu of traditional dishes.
“Start with an enchilada,” Hoenes advised. Familiar Mexican enchiladas consist of a tortilla rolled around beans and cheese, but the Central American version uses a crisp flat tostada. It’s piled with ground beef, bright red pickled beets, slices of onion and hard-boiled egg, then drizzled with tomato sauce. “The messiest kind of thing to eat,” said Hoenes, happily.
He struck up a conversation in Spanish with grandmotherly cook and co-owner Nora Guerra, in Charlotte 10 years from Pasaco in southern Guatemala. “They drive out to a farm to get their chickens,” he reported. “Store-bought chickens just don’t have the right flavor.”
So I ordered chicken soup. It came with a roasted quarter bird that you pull apart and add to the vegetable broth, along with rice and avocado, where it instantly soaks up flavor.
Eric got pepian, “a Guatemalan national dish with roots in pre-Columbian cooking,” he explained. It arrived with a chicken leg submerged in a rich brown sauce, alongside chubby hand-made Guatemalan tortillas ready for dunking.
After that, we didn’t really need dessert. But we had those paper sacks of pastries…
Photo: Tom Hanchett