On the other hand, I sometimes find myself at counter-service restaurants that have no menu. This isn’t much trouble, either, because I can usually chat with the guy running the register and figure out what’s best.
On rare occasions, though, I find myself at the intersection of the two: a cafe with no menu where very little English is spoken. If you’re a monolingual English speaker like me, you might be tempted at this moment to give up.
If that restaurant happens to be Xelapan Cafeteria, though, I beg you, do not give up. Try your best to remember the dozen or so words that kept you from failing that high school Spanish class and the nice woman behind the counter will do her best with the dozen or so English words she’s picked up, too.
There’s a chalkboard behind the counter and you can point at the words written on it and maybe they’ll be serving it that day; maybe they won’t. Maybe a woman will peek her eyes from behind the curtain in the kitchen, as if to say, “Who is this gringo asking so many questions?” Maybe you’ll order some steak tacos, simple and easy. Maybe you’ll get the shrimp ceviche, which is fresh and clean and full of lime juice and cilantro. Maybe you’ll pick out some of the bready pastries in the case; they’re OK.
But, if all else fails, just remember one word: tamales.
The thing you should understand before those tamales arrive at your table is that Xelapan Cafeteria is a Guatemalan restaurant. The tamales served there are neither the familiar, soft corn-husked Mexican ones you know nor the cigar-thick, saucy corn sticks served in the Mississippi Delta.
The thing that looks closest to a Mexican tamale is what Guatemalans call a chuchito, a small dog. At Xelapan, chuchitos are served in corn husks tied on both ends, the way you might wrap a bonbon. Inside, you’ll find a big ball of corn masa that’s much more firm than a Mexican tamale. Break into it with your fork and you’ll find another curiosity: the bone-in flat of a chicken wing. Take a big spoonful of Xelapan’s green salsa, a bracing but not overwhelming sauce of cilantro and jalapeno, and splash it on top. Your first bite will be full of juicy chicken meat, chewy corn and bright heat. I’ll bet you the cost of a tamale that you’ll nearly inhale the rest.
Chuchitos aren’t the only tamales served at Xelapan, though. When it comes to tamales, the masa (or dough) that surrounds the meat is almost synonymous with corn. Not so in Guatemala. At Xelapan, tamales are served with two other kinds of masa, one made from rice and the other from potatoes.
The ones made from potatoes are called paches. Wrapped inside a thick green banana leaf, the potatoes are soft, almost like mashed potatoes, and stuffed with the bone-in drum of a chicken wing. My favorite, though, is the rice tamale, which cooks up to kind of middle-ground texture, soft but just firm enough, gelatinous in a pleasing way. Inside the banana leaf, the rice tamale is seasoned with a red sauce — not spicy, but full of savory, tomato richness.
If you order all three tamales, you’ll have a flight of tamale textures, a lovely little lesson in the idiosyncrasies of Guatemalan cuisine, and what happens to be a gigantic meal for very little money. Throw in a bottle of mineral agua or Jarritos from the drink cooler. You’ll need something to wash it down with.
The interior of Xelapan is pleasant enough. There are plenty of tables and, if you sit in the back, you’ll find a dim, comfortable little booth with a good vantage of the rest of the place. The walls are decorated with the familiar woven fabrics and knickknacks of Latin America, though there is also a giant photograph of a red double-decker bus in London that I assume must have been left behind by the European-themed Milano Bakery & Cafe that occupied the space before Xelapan opened earlier this year.
I have a feeling that I haven’t tasted everything great that comes out of the kitchen at Xelapan Cafeteria yet. One day, when I had spent so many minutes at the counter asking every question I could think to ask in my poor Spanglish, I thought I’d figured out everything they serve. Not so. The guys at the table next me ordered big bowls teeming with soup. I asked the waitress why she hadn’t told me about that. “That’s the soup with the bone of the beef,” she said as if I should have known. I wanted to get it, but I’d already downed four tamales.
Oh, well, I thought, it’s just another good excuse to come back.