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Jan 30, 2013 12:38 AM

First Time Visit to Guatemala in February!!! SF Chowhound Would Love Excellent Finds in Antigua, GC, and Tikal!

Hello, Hello Everyone!

My traveling party of three passionate diners will be heading to Guatemala for five days in just two weeks! The trip will be very short and very intense as I'll explain in the itinerary. As a former Los Angeles and now SF based food writer, the dining, drinking, and coffee explorations will be very important to me (along with the ruins at Yáxha, Tikal, Lago de Atitlan...) for what should be a tremendous trip!

Here's the planning schedule--
Day 1
Arrive late GC, dinner in GC

Day 2
Day- fly to Flores, rent car, see Yaxha Ruins, night at Tikal

Day 3
Morning Tikal, day Lago Petén Itza, fly to GC, stay Antigua
dinner: Antigua

Day 4
Lago de Atitlan, stay/dinner Antigua

Day 5
Pacaya Volcano, stay/dinner Antigua

It comes down to:
1 dinner GC, 1 dinner Tikal, 3 dinners Antigua (Saturday-Monday)
Lunches at Yaxha, Lago Peten Itza, Lago de Atitlan, and Pacaya

I'm also very interested in interesting bars and cafes for cocktails/wine/coffee in Antigua and also hope to visit a coffee plantation or two. I've been trying to plan with Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, and co. here in SF about arranging on-site cuppings at the plantations, but we haven't been able to put together any solid plans yet.

I've been reading all of the wonderful posts in the past by RWOrange, JoanN, and lots of other hounds...very helpful! I used to adore a Guatemalan place near Macarthur Park in LA that made a top notch tamales and a brilliant pepian, but it closed shortly before I moved. So I certainly am looking for some great traditional cuisine, and restaurants of all levels -- from high end to comedors to once a week tamale stalls. But other cuisines are welcome too if you think the restaurants/shops should be visited.

We probably shouldn't have pepian every meal, so a good variety might be nice, but let's see how we can best arrange this dining itinerary!

I'm working initially with--
GC- dinner at Jake's, maybe Tamarindos, or something new and exciting?

Tikal, lunches at the other nature spots- no idea

Antigua-Saberico for sure (for dinner?), the 3rd La Fonda de la Calle Real, Hector's, Bistro Cinq, Panza Verde, Casa Santo Domingo, La Cancha, El Sereno, La Tienda de la Canche, Toko Baru
Drinks- looking for recommendations, at least need eat at the restaurant or go to the bar at Casa Santo Domingo
Bakeries/ Other- San Antonio. Also, do they still do Saturday tamales outside La Repositoria? A must stop for pupusas also?
Coffee- The Refuge, Cafe la Parada, Fernando's...

Thank you so much for your help! I'm so excited for what should be a very spectacular and delicious short trip!!

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  1. Won’t be going back to Antigua until the end of February so I have no up-to-the-minute info on what’s new. A couple of things I can tell you though.

    Food options in Tikal are very limited. Depending on your timing, you might get the best food buying it from the women who sell tamales near the entrance to the park. Everything else, even in the lodge restaurants, is institutional.

    My Guatemalteco friends tell me the quality at Jake’s has gone downhill since I was last there. It’s still a lovely location, but the food is hit or miss which is not acceptable considering the prices they charge.

    Papusas are Salvadoran; I’ve never seen them in Antigua. There is, however, a papuseria owned by a Salvadoran near the Circus Bar in Panajachel.

    I like Saberico better as a lunch spot, especially if the weather is good. Another very good spot for lunch is Epicure; good food, and yet another charming garden. I still adore Hector’s and can eat there once a week while I’m in town. Bistro Cinq is still very good. Not on your list is Sobre Mesa; very good food for either lunch or dinner and excellent ice creams. Also not on your list, Don Martin for dinner; good food, charming little place; a bit off the beaten path.

    El Sereno is great for drinks at sunset; you can have dinner somewhere else. The Sky Cafe is extremely popular for drinks and the views are great but their cocktails come out of a bottle and if I went again I’d stick with beer.

    Another place for a drink and a snack is El Tenedor del Cerro. Great views of Antigua. You get a shuttle bus from in front of Santo Domingo.

    I think La Cancha and La Tienda de la Canche are two different names for the same place rather than two different places.

    Hope you have a great trip. Please report back. Will be eager to hear what you decided and what you thought.

    1. Thanks JoanN so much for your response!

      Sobre Mesa and Don Martin are immediately added to the list. So, you'd recommend Sobre Mesa for more than ice cream? (It looks like a great restaurant too, just trying to compare with others in the city).

      Right now I'm certainly leaning towards Hector's, then a traditional like Don Partin or Fonda de la Calle Real for 2nd dinner, and a more "splurge" like Bistro Cinq or one of the hotels for the 3rd dinner. Let me know your thoughts!

      I'm curious with today's Bocuse d'Or results, Marcos Sáenz of Casa Santo Domingo just rated very highly, and I'm curious, having not heard anything yea or nay about his cooking, is it worth a stop for a special dinner?

      And, bakeries? Any recs for morning pastries and tamales in Antigua?

      1 Reply
      1. re: pats38sox

        Yes, Sobremesa has very good food. Tiny place. Might be better for lunch than for dinner, but both are good. And if you just want to try the ice cream, there's a separate ice cream shop with the same name around the corner and halfway up the block.

        La Fonda is popular (mostly with tourists) and traditional, but I'm not a huge fan--of any of the locations. I think you can get a better pepian, for instance, at SabeRico. Your call on that one.

        Panza Verde is much more of a splurge (and significantly more formal) than Bistro Cinq and I've had a couple of excellent meals there--although not in a while. And I've only had lunch at Santo Domingo so can't compare it with Panza Verde. Another place you might consider is Welten. Beautiful, and very romantic. I only ate there once and wasn't blown away by the food, but friends who have returned since then tell me they've had very good meals there.

        I'm not much of a pastry person, but Doña Luisa Xicotencatl, in the center of town, has both a bakery and a restaurant that is very popular with both locals and tourists--especially for weekend breakfasts. Their breads are good (especially their banana bread), but I can't comment on their pastries. What I love are champurradas (a big cookie meant to be dunked in coffee) from Panaderia San Antonio (know locally as Cuchi-Cuchi; there are a few different locations). Nearly all panaderias sell champurradas, but I think San Antonio's are the best.

        Tamales are best bought on the street from the women who sell them from the doorways of their houses. No specific recommendations as I'm not the biggest fan and have never comparison shopped for them.

        Coincidentally, I spoke to my friends who live in the capital last night and they reminded me of two restaurants in Zone 10 I've liked a great deal: Camille (French) and Carpaccio (Italian). They also said there are a lot of new restaurants since I've been there and recommended both Equis and Clio's. I gather both are fairly high end.

        I'm sure you'll have a great time. I'll probably be arriving in Antigua just about the time you leave so will be eager to hear of any new discoveries.

      2. Hi JoanN and Guatemala hounds-- Sorry for the belated trip report!

        It was a magnificent few days in Guatemala, hard for the food and drink to upstage sights like Tikal and Lago de Atitlan...but it was close!

        We opened in G.C. with dinner at Kakao instead of Jake's because of proximity to the hotel. Everything was fair. Pepian, the duck stew, the platanos y was all decent. I wasn't sure if the tamale appetizer was heavily microwaved or supposed to be so moist and watery. I did learn that while Gallo Blonde is basically Budweiser, their darker Moza bock beer is actually quite impressive.

        After a hike of Pacaya and a lunch in G.C. at Monoloco (nothing really to report there), we flew off to Flores and stayed in El Remate. Had a lovely lunch near Yaxha at the El Sombrero Lodge. It turns out the owner is from Italy...I asked because the basil she made was out of this world, as good as I've had in Santa Margherita. We had one dinner at Francis Ford Coppola's La Lancha Resort, where the food was surprisingly good, and yes, you can get plenty of Coppola wines (very nice after a day of climbing ruins).
        I fully recommend the steak and the Lago de Peten Itza catch of the day, served whole, along with the best pepian of the trip (by a long shot), and the bananas dessert and sweet potato creme brulee dessert. Definitely take advantage of the free tortillas too!

        Then to Antigua for 2 nights-- fantastic opening lunch at Sabe Rico, a real gem. Really, get anything. I personally loved the portobello sandwich. Plus, they give the option of Terra chips with your sandwich! Don't forget dessert, especially the banana chocolate truffle.
        Espresso at Cafe Barista followed, shockingly good for such a prominent location. I learned from meeting with a coffee importer in Santiago de Atitlan that only a select few cafes in the country even serve Guatemalan beans because so little of the market is willing to pay the premium price for premium beans. And, only El Refugio in Antigua roasts its own beans. Unfortunately, we didn't make it to El Refugio, La Parada, or Fernando's.

        Then before exploring the town, had some great ice cream at Sobre Mesa. Hugo Rosa (figs) was my winner...only wish they didn't pre-package the ice creams already. The lady there was very generous with samples, though.

        Then for the evening, some Ron Zacapa and White Family wine from Guatemala at Casa Santo Domingo. Guatemala's rum is terrific...the wine has a ways to go. What a beautiful setting.

        We tried for Don Martin for dinner, but it closed a half hour before it said it was supposed to be closed (got there at 8:30 on a Sunday). So we scrambled and had to settle for the only open place, La Fonda de la Calle Real. Avoid it like the plague. Only the platanos y mole was would be worth ordering again. Do...not... get the pepian!

        Finished at Cafe No Se, the reposado being my favorite surprisingly over the Anejo amongst the Illegal Mezcal.

        Next day went to Lago de Atitlan, and returned for a drink at out hotel, the Panza Verde. After learning I was a food and drink writer, Bruce the owner told us to skip dinner at Hector's and have appetizers at his place with the New Orleans jazz concert, then dinner at 39 Azul, run by his former chef.
        I tried to help with the cocktails at the Panza Verde that needed some heavy lifting, but the appetizers were all terrific (especially the honey roasted beets and feta). The menu there is all over the place-- semi-creative and semi-Continental. But, the cooking is spot on and wow that setting is nothing short of enchanting. Now, the Panza Verde is creating a Guatemalan cuisine part of the menu by popular request, a terrific idea. I'd love to hear reports on it!

        And if you have the chance, definitely get breakfast at the Panza Verde...superb tamales, all cooked and served by the sweetest lady!

        39 Azul was great fun-- a little on the snooty side, but terrific Scandinavian influenced food since the chef hails from Norway via training in France. Get the herring and some aquavit for sure. The special baby goat in a passion fruit sauce was the best thing I ate in all of Guatemala.

        Then...Cafe No Se again. It's sort of a magnet I guess. Then it was off to Mexico City the next morning for lots more dining.

        Lots more to try for the next trip! Thank you so much for your advice in making this very special trip to Guatemala also an incredibly delicious one!

        4 Replies
        1. re: pats38sox

          Well worth waiting for, pats38sox. Sounds like you covered a lot of territory for such a short trip.

          Thanks for the heads-up on 39 Azul. Hadn’t even heard of it. Hope to be able to check it out weekend after next when friends arrive for a few days. In fact, there are a number of new restaurants in town that I’ve heard good things about. May be eating out more than I’d intended in the next few weeks.

          What a shame you had to substitute La Fonda (completely agree with your assessment) for Don Martin, but must say my most recent dinner at DM wasn’t as good as last year. Still a charming place, and friends enjoyed it a great deal, but although my lamb was excellent and cooked as requested, the sauce was almost inedibly salty and the vegetables looked and tasted tired. Hope it was just an off night, since I’m quite fond of the place.

          So pleased you liked Sabe Rico. I’ve never taken anyone there who wasn’t enchanted by it. Next time, try their limonada. Don’t know why it’s so much better than anyone else’s, but it is.

          Although El Refugio may be the only cafe that roasts its own beans, there is a tiny shop in town shop, Tostaduria Antigua, run by a gringo coffee nerd who buys only shade-grown highland coffee from small growers who dry their naturally sweet Arabica berries in the sun. He roasts the coffee in his shop and offers a dark, medium, or a light roast. You can’t buy a cup of coffee, but if you have access to a coffee maker you can buy some excellent coffee either in the bean or ground to order. Or, to take home.

          I tend not to go out for breakfast, but must make an exception for Panza Verde. Sounds wonderful.

          Thanks for your great report.

          1. re: pats38sox

            Had dinner recently at both Panza Verde and 39 Azul. Will write up a more comprehensive report of 39 Azul when I have the time, but thought I’d post a quick followup here.

            Dinner at Panza Verde was the most mediocre I’ve had there in about five visits over four years. Boy! are you right about the cocktails! My friend and I ordered margaritas, and although they may not have been made from a mix, they tasted as though they could have been. Sweet lemonade with a hint of tequila. Yecch! Appetizers were okay, but mains not much better than the cocktails. Not one of the four of us finished our meal, and one of us--after more than half an hour wait--was brought the wrong main dish. Yes, it was Semana Santa and yes the place was loaded with big tables of tour groups. But every restaurant in town expects, nay, hopes, to get slammed during Semana Santa. A terribly disappointing experience.

            Finally got around to trying 39 Azul when two friends came to visit and we were enchanted by it. Didn’t seem at all snooty to me, but then, I live in Manhattan and may register snooty on a different scale. One of us ordered the cabrito, which was tasty but a tad dry. It wasn’t accompanied by a passion fruit sauce, which would have been a lovely addition. One of us had the whole red snapper a la plancha, which was excellent but also just very slightly overcooked. And I had the special lamb confit which was outstanding: meltingly tender lamb with a thin layer of super crisp fat served with an excellent, thin, not overpowering mint sauce. Charming venue, and certainly the best service I’ve ever had in Antigua.

            1. re: JoanN

              That's too bad about the Panza Verde! In Manhattan terms, sounds like the old Tavern on the Green-- all about the spectacular atmosphere! What got me about the dinner menu was how all over the place it was-- no real theme or unifying idea, classic hotel style.
              The cocktails certainly need work-- it's just so hard to launch an accomplished cocktail program it seems! Maybe Jim Meehan can do some consulting work?
              I'm glad to 39 Azul gave a much better performance. Would you still pick Hector's over 39 Azul? That was the question I had to decide when I was visiting, eventually missing out on Hector's.

              1. re: pats38sox

                Hector's and 39 Azul are two entirely different experiences. Hector's is tiny, can be cramped depending on where you're sitting, and barely manages to create a pleasing ambience. It has one harried, but very efficient waitress, and a menu that tends toward steak, duck, terrific burgers (for lunch), boeuf Bourguignon, and a fish of the day. And he has truly outstanding sweet potato fries. The offerings aren't nearly as adventurous as at 39 Azul, but I do think the food is as well prepared and almost as good. Hector's is an everyday kind of place whereas 39 Azul is more special occasion, based only on ambiance and service.