Guatemala - Antigua Panajachel 5/14
I spent a week in Guatemala, arriving in Antigua on 5/24 (Saturday). It was the day of the UEFA Championship League finale, with Real Madrid playing Atletico. Atletico scored first and then played defense, much to the chagrin of the locals, who are mostly Real Madrid fans. I meant to have a little snack, a pequeño nachos, at my hotel (Hotel Soleil) but it was a huge plate of chips, some chicken strips, lots of guacamole, cheese, and tomatoes. Most importantly, it was lukewarm and became cold quickly. Not a good start to my trip.
After Atletico lost in OT, I wondered thru the markets on the west side of town. Found the only super market in town on 8th Ave S, just south of the craft market. In the super market are the cheapest ATMs that I found ($2 fee, other ATMs in town may charge $3-$5).
Just north of the Arco de Santa Catalina (literally one door past the arch as you head toward La Merced, on 5th Ave N), I found a little wine bar staffed by English speakers. The wines by the glass weren't very good but they were cheery and informative, and the more you drink the cheaper the wine gets. I learned about worry dolls and the pharmacy not requiring prescriptions. After a few drinks, I wondered by La Merced and found myself in front of Hector's Bistro.
Hector's is a tiny place, with tables crammed in everywhere. I ordered a soup and snook, pan seared with seared potatoes. The soup was one of those pureed veggie types (I don't recall what though, on account of too many glasses of wine and a long day, got up at 5 a.m.) but it was good. The fish was definitely overcooked though.
On Sunday, I explored on my own. I went behind the local markets to see the chicken buses, then went thru the local markets to check out street food. In the comedor area, some vendors have set up make-shift cafeterias which an array of foods (see 1st photo). I didn't want to buy any so I couldn't inspect them carefully.
My plan was to brunch at Meson Panza Verde. However, upon arrival I found their brunch menu uninteresting so I asked to see the dinner menu. I wanted to eat there because the hotel/restaurant is beautiful. They agreed to serve me crab cakes and pasta with lobster from the dinner menu- and I was seated by the fountain (see photo 2). The crab cakes contained little cubes of potato and they were fishy. The lobster and the pasta were overcooked and I couldn't place what kind of greens were in the pasta (not basil, see photo 3) but it threw the taste of the plate off.
Dinner was at a less impressive but nevertheless beautiful courtyard of Posada de Don Rodrigo (see pic 4). After no luck with two Eurocentric meals, I decided to try something more local - chile relleno and enchilada. The chile relleno was fine - ground beef stuffed in a pepper that is battered and fried. The enchilada was nothing like the enchilada in the U.S. It's a crisp tortilla topped with mostly beets, and served lukewarm. So far I'm betting 0-3.
(will continue posting later).
On Monday I went to the Porta Hotel for a tour with A La Carta. http://www.alacartatours.com/pages/in... The website said tours run at 9, 11:30 and 2:30 and said nothing of reserving in advance. I wanted to take the Gastronomy tour for $65 but they had no guides on hand at 9. Fortunately they found a guide who would be there by 10. So I cooled my heels at the lovely hotel, which had parrots on the property. Lesson - make reservation in advance.
At 10 we strode south to see a nursery then veered toward the local markets, with a stop at a sweets shop. I don't eat sweets generally so I only sampled a marzipan fruit candy.
In the market I was introduced to just a couple of unknown fruits - a local variety of lychee (see pic) and something called chico. The latin American lychee tasted like their Asian counterparts, they only look different. Another fruit that I discovered while at Chichicastenango is a yellow/orange fruit that's cherry sized with a pit in the middle - I thought it tasted stinky, like blue cheese.
The local market has everything - flowers, veggies, herbs, fruits, butchers, fishmongers, pastry makers, and food stalls, in addition to things for daily life. The herbs are generally used for medicinal purposes and according to my guide, the locals don't really eat a lot of fruit (but they sure produce a ton of fruit).
After the tour, we went back to Hotel Porta for my lunch of local foods (part of the tour package). My guide sat down with me but he wasn't served any food. Since I had an abundance of food that I didn't particularly like, I shared everything with my guide and bought him a drink (and tipped him too). The appetizers were a taquito, a tostada and a pie of some sort (see pic). The entree was 3 pepians (see pic). At least the rice had good flavor.
After lunch I took another tour, with Antigua Tours. http://www.antiguatours.net/ This was more of history and sight-seeing. $25 covered entrance fees to the Cathedral's monastery and Casa Santo Domingo's museums. The tour ended at Casa Santo Domingo so on my way back into town center I stopped at Bistrot Cinq for dinner.
I started with duck confit with some well dressed frisee. Based on the first dish, I thought Bistrot Cinq would be a winner. But the shrimp and squid ink pasta had overcooked shrimp and doughy pasta (see pic). I barely touched that bowl of pasta. At this point, I was confident that I would lose weight on this trip.
I think it was Sunday that I had some Pollo Campero - the pride of Guatemala. I've had it in VA but I felt obligated to try the chicken in its home country. I thought it was better in Guatemala, but it's not some super amazing fried chicken by any means. I guess I'm just partial to southern fried chicken.
On Tuesday, I went to Panajachel - pronounced Pana - ha - chal, or just Pana for short. My first meal was at Chinita, a pan Asian restaurant on the main drag (Santander). The veggie dumpling was okay but the chicken stir fry with black bean sauce was nothing like Chinese food. I even asked the owner if it was authentic and she said yes. Lesson - don't trust restaurant owners in Pana. But they had free wifi.
I spent the afternoon wondering thru Reserva Natural Atitlan - feeding monkeys and giant varmints called coatis bananas. They're pretty cute though. On my way back in town, I stopped at the most beautiful resort that I've seen on this trip - Hotel Atitlan. Just to enter costs 55q, but that's rebated from your food/bar tab. I had a couple of beers and a mixed seafood ceviche (see pic).
The compound has an infiniti pool with a view of Lake Atitlan, several gardens stocked with koi fish, ducks, geese, giant rabbits, parakeets, etc. Oh I wished I stayed there. Instead, I stayed at Hotel Regis, on Santander, with the only hot spring-fed pools. Unfortunately the rooms aren't sound proof and I was woken up by loud music, barking dogs, etc. Everyone else who stayed in Pana reported being woken up in the middle of the night - jet lag didn't help.
Dinner was at the Circus Bar in Pana. I ordered a prosciutto pizza but it was really smoked ham (too bad I don't speak Spanish). It wasn't a bad pizza, so I ate half of it just in case I stumble on something else. Sure enough, something caught my eyes at Chez Alex, on Santander (not to be confused with Chef Alex on Principal which sells cheap steaks). They had foie gras torchon imported from France, made of goose liver rather than duck. A nice treat. I also had some Serrano ham, probably imported as well. I can't say Chez Alex is a good restaurant even though everything I had was great, because none of it was cooked in house. (see pic)
On Wednesday, I took a 4 village tour around Lake Atitlan, visiting San Marcos, San Juan, San Pedro and Santiago Atitlan. I paid $20 for the tour at Atitran (with offices in Antigua and Pana, I arranged all my shuttles with them as well, other than the ride from Guatemala airport to Antigua). Others paid less by purchasing from other vendors, even though we all ended up on the same boat. With Atitran, you book in advance on their website - although that's not really necessary during the off season.
When we got to San Juan, our boat captain suggested that we take a tour, for $5 each. He then got his buddy the tuk tuk (see pic) driver to take us to see (i) a women's collective of weavers, (ii) a herb garden, (iii) an organic coffee shop, and (iv) an artist collective. Four of us piled into 1 tuk tuk, with its driver. 3 women sat in the back, and I sat in the front with the driver.
The only worthwhile stop is the women's collective weaver shop. There they have really high quality products at a fixed price. If for no other reason, you get to see what a fair price is and what high quality is. When I got there, I realized most of the stuff I bought on the streets were crap and I overpaid, even with some half-hearted haggling on my part.
Back at Pana, we had drinks at the Sunset Cafe and Pana Rocks before having dinner at Guajimbo's Uruguay Parillada on Santander. I had the combo platter for 2, which had chicken, pork chop, steak, and 2 different sausages. I sampled each a bit, nothing exciting and the leftovers were given to a passing child to take home.
On Thursday, I went to Chichicastenango to see the market. Whereas the Antigua market was mostly indoors, the Chichi market was mostly outdoors, occupying the streets in the center of town. I wasn't shopping for goods, instead I had my eyes on street food. Most food vendors on the streets sold fried chicken, but as you dive into the interior of the market, you can find gruel, tamales, chicken soup, even fried fish and grilled steaks. I had the guts to sample some fried chicken, a tamale, and chicken rice soup. See pic of for interior vendor - doesn't look very kosher at all. Luckily I did not get sick.
I returned to Antigua Thursday evening and had dinner at Izakaya. I don't know who the chefs are or where they're trained, but they spoke English and were pleasant enough to me, the only diner there. I had their tiradito, veggie tempura, and beef tataki. The fish and beef were amazing - the fish was raw but drizzled with hot olive oil, not exactly a real tiradito but delicious anyway and the beef was obviously rare and tender. Mostly importantly they were well seasoned, with some soy sauce and ponzu. The veggie tempura, however, were under-cooked and not crispy. I didn't have the heart to tell them that the veggie tempura sucked, and that after 3 dishes, I was still not full (but dinner with a jar of sake was only $41 with tip). Bistrot Cinq at $52 was my most expensive meal (drinks and tip included) on the whole trip.
The dining was bad to start but it's starting to get better and the best is yet to come.
On Friday, my last full day in Guatemala, I got a massage and basically lounged around in places with wifi. For lunch I went to Pappy's Texas BBQ (see menu pic). They were in the process of expanding to 7 days a week and full day operation. I opted to try the ribs and lean brisket. I talked to the pit-master, Blake, and told him how much I loved the moist brisket at Hill Country BBQ (a mini chain in NYC and DC). He said that cut just isn't available on the Brahman cattle that's raised in Antigua. While his lean brisket was better than Hill Country's - it's just too dry for my liking. The ribs were nice and juicy though. They have two kind of BBQ sauces for those who feel the need to wet their BBQ. I actually did dip my lean brisket in some sauce for flavor and moisture. And it's dirt cheap.
At some point I found McDonald's. There's nothing unique on the menu but it does have a nice little garden (see pic).
For dinner I went to El Cazador Italiano (literally directly behind the Cathedral at Central Park). I started out with an amazing prosciutto arugula Neapolitan pizza (see pic). Prosciutto arugula are my favorite combination and Neapolitan is my favorite style. Finding that in Antigua is shocking. Even more shocking is how good the crust is, very little edge, chewy under the topping but super crispy on the edge. It's as good as any pizza I've ever had (but I haven't gone to Naples). I only ate half of a small pizza because I also ordered the tagliolini vongole. The pasta was handmade, the clams were fresh, and the whole dish was very good. I've had better pasta but this was by far the best pasta dish I've had in Antigua.
On Saturday I left Guatemala. Of note, the only Pollo Campero at the airport is outside of the security checkpoint and someone on my flight did bring fried chicken on board.
I planned most of my trip using Moon Guatemala guidebook and selected most of the restaurants based on JoanN's recommendations on this thread http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/842357