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La Guanaquita: A genuine trip to Central America

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I donâ ™t know about you, but this recession has made a serious dent in my travel plans. This makes it a great time to explore the proverbial backyard and, as food lovers all over town are aware, the corridor along west 38th St. is rich with what amount to 90-minute vacations â " ethnic restaurants where the experience feels so authentic you come away feeling as though youâ ™ve just spent an hour or so in another country.

The folks at La Guanaquita (5435 W. 38th St.) hail from El Salvador. Tucked between Guatemala and Honduras on Central Americaâ ™s Pacific coast, human history in Guatemala dates back at least 10,000 years. During the 1980s, a civil war, enflamed by the Reagan administration, took the lives of tens of thousands of people.

La Guanaquita combines a restaurant with a grocery in a block building, decorated with painted roses. You enter and turn left or right, depending on whether you want to eat or buy the ingredients. Open until midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, the restaurant has the feel of a community gathering place.

The dining room is a large space with rows of formica-topped tables and a few narrow booths down one side. At lunch on a Friday, a TV flickered with Spanish-language soap opera.

The menus are bilingual, but our friendly waitress was not â " and neither were we â " so ordering was a little like a lottery. I thought I ordered a Tamarind drink and got a large serving of what I believe was iced Guava juice (it tasted remarkably fresh and delicious); my companion was expecting a breakfast dish made with sliced bananas and got a fajita with grilled steak.

Happily, two dishes we were hoping for arrived as ordered and more than lived up to expectation. On Fridays, La Guanaquita serves Hen Soup ($8.50). The hens, we were told, are purchased at a nearby farm. This one arrived in the form of a grilled breast quarter, served on a plate alongside a large, steaming bowl of buttery broth generously stuffed with peppers, beans, carrot hunks, onions, tomatoes and a split chayote â " a kind of squash that looks a lot like a pear but tastes more like a potato. I was encouraged to put the hen in the soup for a spell, which I did. In a little while the meat softened and I scraped it from the bone with my knife. If Iâ ™m ever stricken with a cold I canâ ™t shake, I now know where to go for a truly singular take on chicken soup.

Soups, by the way, have a certain pride of place on weekends at La Guanquita. On Saturdays they serve a Beef Soup and on Sundays, Hoof Soup (both are $8.50).

Message boards in town have generated raves about the Tortas, or sandwiches at La Guanaquita. I ordered one made with chorizo sausage ($5.00). This featured a generous portion of ground sausage fried with chile powder and served with shredded lettuce, tomato and a creamy dressing on a large, soft bun. Cut limes were brought as a garnish and provided the sandwich with an ingenious blend of the spicy, creamy and brightly tart. This was a real find, and an immediate entry in my Indy Hall of Guilty Pleasures.

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