"Several years ago, before the strip of Lafayette Road north of 30th Street had metamorphosed into one of the city’s most diverse culinary enclaves, offering food from three continents, I ate at La Guanaquita, the Mexican and Central American restaurant that preceded Guatelinda, looking for some alternatives to typical south-of-the-border fare. Indeed, it did have pupusas and tamales, two popular Latin American snacks. But the former arrived utterly unadorned on the plate and lacked much flavor; the latter were small and leaden, definitely nothing to get excited about. A somewhat dim, already rundown interior offered little to draw me back again, even for an inexpensive lunch.
So it was strange to find myself at the same location recently, especially with a group of folks counting on my culinary acumen to direct them to a great meal. Somehow I had forgotten, yet again, the curious fact that all the other restaurants on that corner are closed on Tuesdays, of all days. But who can begrudge hardworking cooks and servers the day of the week they want off? Suddenly, I was not merely a restaurant critic but a traffic monitor, too, pointing cars down the parking lot to Guatelinda, hoping upon hope that, along with a name change, it had improved over the years.
Though one would be hard-pressed to call the place elegant, the shotgun eatery has been given a coat of baby blue paint since I ate there first, and a few more colorful artifacts on the wall bring to mind “The Land of Eternal Spring,” the motto of tropical Guatemala. Still, the market next door and a cluttered bar area in the back seem to provide too many distractions for the staff, who can often leave you stranded at your table. At lunch, with the group, our waitress did her best to take our orders, though our high school Spanish often got blank stares and a few items never arrived. When I returned for dinner, she seemed exasperated by the fact that we were only ordering one entrée to go along with an assortment of antojitos (“little bites,” essentially appetizers). On both occasions, she had to summon help from a quite friendly English-speaking employee to clear up any possible confusion.
But quirks like this can easily be forgiven when a restaurant has improved so much over time, and Guatelinda is no longer just a fill-you-up Latin lunch counter but an international restaurant of nuance and surprise. Some dishes are quite familiar; others use familiar elements in new ways. Now steamed in banana leaves, as they would be in Guatemala, tamales ($2) are light, fluffy and flavorful, with a good filling-to-corn ratio. Pupusas ($1.30), the most authentic Central American snack, are deliciously rich. Basically fat little tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans and pork (or a combination of the three), they come slightly crispy with a bowl of bracingly tart coleslaw to mound on top.
Big enough for a hearty lunch or a light supper, the sopes ($2) pile tons of well-seasoned pork or steak atop thick fried bread with lettuce, tomato, crema (a lighter sour cream) and salty cotija cheese. All dishes have a freshness to them without the heft of some Latin cuisine; they’re also more artfully presented than at most similar taquerias. Unfortunately, salsa and sauces are a little runny and bland here, though one smokier, rust-colored sauce had plenty of bite.
The menu can be a tad confusing. “Almuerzos” or lunch offerings are also the main dinner entrées, available all day. Tamales appear only under breakfast listings (they’re also available all of the time). Various items like Guatemalan “Chao Mein” are served only on Fridays. Among larger meals, the chile rellenos revise the typical cheese-filled bombs of most Tex-Mex joints and make them light and homey with a stuffing of chicken, pork, vegetables and a rich tomato sauce. Bright yellow rice comes flecked with veggies; refried beans are somewhat standard. For seafood lovers, fish soups and a giant octopus and shrimp cocktail ($10) are refreshing and definitely not skimping on fruits of the sea.
While it wasn’t listed as a dessert, a croquette-like “rellenito” of sweet plantains stuffed with a black bean sauce and dusted with sugar are absolutely luscious whether you eat them last or first. And be sure to wash things down with an agua fresca ($1.50/medium). The tamarind version is like a fruitier cream soda, and the jamaica made from hibiscus blossoms is a bright red elixir you’re as likely to sip on the Pacific west coast of Guatemala as on the west “coast” of your own city.
3107 Lafayette Road
Sunday-Thursday: 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Food: 4 stars
Atmosphere: 2.5 stars
Service: 2.5 stars
Recommended dishes: sopes, tamales, pupusas, rellenitos de platano