You remember Pho Tu Do? I'm not why the folks there decided on changing over to a rather generic sushi joint. But they had a decent run of 8 years or so. I'm not sure if the rather unsavory named Twisted Sushi opening across the street had anything to do with things, but now the place is becoming Yakitori Ramen Kanpai Izakaya. I'm also not sure if this place is associated with Kanpai in Chula Vista, but I'm sure Eater or someone will have the scoops.
What struck me as interesting was the sign to check out Fish Attack? There's a story here somewhere.....
5430 Clairemont Mesa Blvd San Diego, CA 92117
Havana Grill Coming Soon:
At least that's what the sign leads you to believe.
Seems like a bit more work yet to be done.
This was the location of the ill fated Casa Medina. Which I think has relocated inside the Indian Market.
As I continue my sandwich revisits since my TMJ has calmed down.
I'd been meaning to return since my first couple of visits over a year ago. I thought the food had promise and the concept was interesting.
The place looks basically the same; the prices have edged up a notch, though are still quite reasonable.
I went with the "Midnight Calorie Bomb" the Cubano/Medianoche ($6.75).
I previously thought this a decent sandwich. It has now risen to "good". I thought the weak link previously was the pulled pork, which was very dry and ice cold in my sandwich. That has been remedied. The pork was warm, nicely seasoned, perhaps on the edge of being too salty, and was adequately moist. The ham added even more of a sodium kick and the swiss cheese provided a nice milky level of flavor. The bread was quite nice, pressed, crisp, and yeasty. And while the sandwich doesn't look very big, it's quite filling and more than enough for me.
Man, if this place was in the Gaslamp and open when the clubs got out....they'd do a killing.....
Nice to see the place is doing well.
Embargo Grill 3960 W Point Loma Blvd San Diego, CA 92110 Hours: Mon-Thurs11am - 9pm Fri-Sat 11am - 10pm Sunday 11am - 9pm
Yeah, I know, Cathy and I have done a number of posts on Bristol Farms. I'd mentioned the Tri-Tip Sandwich in a previous post. Several key things have to be in place for me to get the sandwich. There are a couple of folks, often from the deli area that I know make a good sandwich. One of the guys really takes his time, but whenever he makes my sandwich, it comes out like this:
Also, I check out the tri-tip, or the turkey to make sure it doesn't look old and tired. For the turkey sandwich; I go dark meat all the way. After having this through the years, I know how I like mine; toasted roll, horseradish sauce (on one side) in place of the BBQ sauce, grilled mushroom and onions, regular onions, tomato and lettuce. When it comes out well.....it's quite a sandwich.
Of course, one of the main reasons I was a Bristol Farms was to pick stuff up for a "light" dinner on the porch.
Bristol Farms 8510 Genessee Ave San Diego, CA 92122
I had been wondering how Antojitos Colombianos was doing. It had been a while; over a year since I last visited the place. It could be that the relatively heavy, hearty, and let's just put it straight "gut-busting" Colombian food served here is not something one eats alone. In fact, on my last visit, over a year ago, I had the good fortune of having Kirbie and DH helping me out.
Still, I was wondering how they were doing, so I managed to talk my good friends, Candice and JohnL into joining me for dinner the week before Christmas.
It was nice to see the familiar faces of the folks working here....it was even more gratifying to see that they had a steady flow of customers. The place looks a bit more spic n' span, but is still that collection of poster and other "stuffs" that first endeared the place to me.
We started with the empanadas, which were nice and light.
I do prefer them fried to a bit more of a crisp texture. The beef filling was fine, but it's all about balance for me and having it just that much more crunchy would have done it for me.....
Of course I had to order the softball sized Papa Rellena.
Stuffed with saffron rice and chicken, along with a boiled egg...I love the crisp exterior and the potato....though I need to remind myself to ask for something picante to have with it the next time.
The Lengua en Salsa is still the best item here in my opinion.
The deep beef flavor along with the tangy-acidic flavors just make this a wonderful dish. I forgot to request yucca frita instead of the stewed yucca....won't forget next time. Still, this dish is still a winner.
I also decided to order the Picada.......a fried pork and carb lover's dream.....or perhaps nightmare.
So the score on this one is four to three....four types of proteins....most of it deep fried; chorizo (Mexican), carne, chicharron, and the best item costilla....deep fried pork ribs. Three types of carbs; arepa (griddled corn cake), french fries (papas), and patacones; deep fried green plantains. In this case the green you see is really for presenation only and that tomato was carefully placed to distract you from thinking about all that other stuff.
Since JohnL got here late, I had the pleasure of ordering for him......since he's a growing boy, though these days more horizontal than vertical, I ordered the gut busting Bandeja Paisa. "Don't worry" the young lady told JohnL when he looked upon this....."we're open for two more hours, so you have lots of time" as she laughed and walked away......
I got no complaints from him...... The chorizo on this plate is the one usually served with the arepa and was really tasty.
We ended with a flan........
As we headed toward the finish line, the owner Javier came out front and thanked us for coming, shaking our hands. It's these touches that makes me want to return....I'll make sure it's sooner than a year this time.
Antojitos Colombianos 2851 Imperial Ave San Diego, CA 92102 Open Daily 11am - 7pm
I was shopping at Baron's in Point Loma a few weeks ago and noticed this shop across the street.
I thought the name to be kind of strange until I looked over the menu.
From looking over the menu and the interior, it became quite clear that this was a "fast-casual" concept with a strong Cuban-Puerto Rican - Latin American slant....thus the reference to El Bloquero, which I did find somewhat strange in a way.
The prices are pretty much in line with Chipotle and other similar places; but of course the menu seemed a hundred times more interesting.
Service was kind of lax, but the woman who took my order and brought my food out to me was very nice and friendly. I went with the Cubano ($5.95), which wasn't actually a Cubano, but really a Medianoche, literally "midnight sandwich", obviously a reference to post bar/nightclub calorie bomb, late night eats.
The big difference between Cubano's that I've had and this sandwich is the use of pulled pork, in this case quite dry, served ice cold, and bland. I did love the bread, which was crisp, light, somewhat yeasty and nicely pressed. The ham and Swiss cheese really tasted good....like well, ham and cheese! The sandwich wasn't very large, though I did save half for the Missus who enjoyed it much more than I did. What I realy found amusing was that lump of pork piled on the side like a...well, not to mock it, but it really looked like a turd garnish.
The reason I was so full was due to the side dish I ordered; the Yuca Frita ($2.75).
As you know, I just can't resist this stuff. This one however, I will resist in the future. I love the crisp, yet light as air texture of well fried yucca....this one was kind of dense and not very crisp. I think it was fried at too low a temperature. The mojo criollo lacked balance, more oil than anything, lacking the citrus acid component making this seem greasy. There was enough garlic, but this seemed very appropriate for a "medianoche meal"......totally a grease bomb.
I thought my previous meal was worth another visit, so a couple of days later I returned. Same really friendly woman at the counter. I looked over the menu a bit more and noticed the variations of salads and create your own bowls. Still, I really enjoyed the bread the last time, so I decided on one of the most expensive items on the menu; the Churrasco Steak Sandwich, on a pan medianoche ($8.95).
This was a pretty decent sandwich. The steak, which appears to be flank had obviously been prepared ahead and was on the tough side. The flavoring was decent; I personally enjoy stronger flavors, but the combination of the chimichurri and the creamy aioli was satisfying if created "not to offend". I really like the rolls here for some reason. The portion of protein was not large, but this was fine by me.
While the portion sizes aren't for big eaters, I thought this was right for me. The service, though a bit slow, was very nice and friendly. It's not a place I'd go out of my way for; but if I worked or lived in the area I'd drop by every now and then. I'll probably visit again in the future if I'm nearby....give it a shot, it's a nice change of pace from Chipotle, Baja Fresh, etc, etc, etc.....
Embargo Grill 3960 W Point Loma Blvd San Diego, CA 92110 Hours: Mon-Thurs11am - 9pm Fri-Sat 11am - 10pm Sunday 11am - 9pm
I've been trying to restore my "restaurant mojo" since returning from vacation. After some not very good meals, I wondered how those places that used to be on our rotation was doing these days. So about two weeks ago, I decided to revisit a few that I haven't been to in a while. And so "It's been a while week" is born.
Latin Chef used to be a favorite of the Missus and I, we'd often visit several times a week. I could easily have credited the place with fueling the fire to visit Peru in 2007. It held a prominent place in our rotation at one time. But our enthusiasm eventually waned when the original chef moved back to Peru. And though I've visited a couple of times in 2011 and once early last year, the food on those visits was quite uneven. Part of what was missing for me was the presence of Freddy, the owner, a friendly, gracious, gentleman, who always had time to chat a bit. I'm sure he was around, but never on our visits, and the food seemed to suffer.
Still, the recent warm weather made it seem just right for some cebiche so I headed on over to Latin Chef.
And lo' and behold, who was waving at me from the window but Freddy! I hadn't seen him in at least four years. I had a seat and we caught up on things while I placed my order. While waiting for my food, Freddy sat down and we had a chat. Over the years, the menu had expanded to include Brazilian dishes, which I'd never had. Some folks attribute the uneven food to the addition of that side of the menu. When I asked Freddy about those dishes, he told me that without te Brazilian menu, they would not have survived the last three years. Enough with business....we chatted about how Peru has changed over the couple of years. It seems that everyone there now wants to be a chef! Maybe it's time to start planning another visit, eh? Though I was also told that prices have soared as well.
As Freddy served me my Anticuchos, he had to take leave to head out and shop.
I've always enjoyed the marinated beef heart at Latin Chef and I enjoyed this. Well prepared, with a nice chew but not too tough and rubbery, flavored with a mildly spicy chili-annatto marinade with a hint of acid I thought these were nice.
My cebiche pescado wasn't quite as good. First, no chanchita? That's almost a deal breaker for me as I love those toasted kernels of corn.
As much as I enjoy the bracing flavor of a good cebiche pescado, this was way too sour for me. I wouldn't be slurping up this leche de tigre (the cebiche marinade). The fish was under marinated for my taste, a bit too tough, as if the acid in the leche de tigre didn't have enough time. As for potatoes, it was a plain camote or sweet potato. Sadly, this was a far cry from the "vintage cebiche pescado" of Latin Chef's past:
Perhaps it was an off day. I'll probably be back to (finally) try some of the Brazilian dishes on the menu and maybe the cebiche pescado again. Hopefully, it'll be back to classic form.
I'd had a couple of requests to check out Tropicafe in Chula Vista, mostly from folks who I really didn't know. So a couple of weeks back, I spoke to a co-worker AF, who lived in Colombia from the age of 8 to 18. He'd been asking me if I knew of anywhere that had Colombian food on the menu...anyplace but Tropical Star. I told him I'd heard of a place in Chula Vista called Tropicafe, but hadn't tried it out.....AF told me he'd check it out and report back. Then I didn't see him for maybe a month or so. when I finally saw him, he told me, "the food is pretty much the real deal, but not everything is great. It's worth a try, just stay away from the Mexican food, which is on the menu because they need to make a living." Asked for a recommendation, I was told, "everyone needs to have the Bandeja Paisa the first time. There's better things on the menu, but that's the national dish."
So there I was, taking the Main Street off ramp in Chula Vista and driving into one of the "garage strip malls"......and right across from Juan's Auto Repair and the Mercedes Engine Exchange was this tiny shop.
The place opens at 930 am, and I'd arrived pretty early. The restaurant is pretty small, maybe five tables....I was thrown off by the chafing dishes when I entered, but it was part of a display advertising their catering business. The drill is simple, I walked to the counter and ordered, which I'm sure is not the way, or maybe the way, since half the folks coming after me sat and ordered when the menu arrived and half just sauntered to the counter like I did. The woman in the kitchen in the back smiled and gave me the "peace sign".
Naturally, since I'm very good at following instructions, I ordered the Baneja Paisa. After having a seat, the young man told me there was a problem in the kitchen and my order would take about 20 minutes. I was asked if I wanted something else. I had nothing really to do, so I told him I'd wait, which turned out rather well for me......
As I sat and checked my text messages and emails folks started filtering in. After about ten minutes, the young man delivered a fragrant cup of soup to my table. He apologized for the wait and said 'please try the Caldo de Costilla".
A nice hot, mildly thick soup, the flavor of beef and cumin really stood out. I later read that this is Beef Rib soup and popular breakfast item. The main starch item being potatoes. It was very hearty soup which I enjoyed.
About five minutes after finishing my bowl of soup, the young man came by and dropped off a little plastic basket telling me, "your food is almost ready, but here's one of our empanadas for you to try......"
The color of the empanadas was almost a bright yellow. The out crust was quite crisp, but there was still some heft to it. The main flavor in the filling was of seasoned potatoes, which was very good. The meat really didn't have much flavor and I believe it was chicken based on that. The Aji/Salsa had a nice kick to it. I'm thinking there was some habanero in it.
Soon enough my plate arrived. The name is derived from the people of the Paisa region of Colombia, thus it is the "Paisa Platter", I'm figuring the folks of this area had historically worked some major manual labor, because the Bandeja Paisa ($10.50), along with being Colombia's National Dish, is a major calorie bomb.
If God were Vegan, I'd have spontaneously combusted on the spot....... The look on my face got laughs from the folks on the other table as I stared down this amalgamation of fat and protein. I turned to them and said, "I'm going to need a nap after this...." Which drew some good natured laughs. As for the food....
My least favorite items were the beef which was really dry and had a texture like cardboard; and strangely, the chicharon, which was nice and crisp but without much flavor
The fried egg was nice, but I noticed that they food wasn't salted. I enjoyed the patacones (tostones), basically fried green plantains, very mild and not sweet, but also nice and crunchy. The Aji added a nice punch here. The chorizo reminded me of a spicy Longanisa, it had a nice sweetness, but a little punch as well.
The one item I really enjoyed was the beans, which were seasoned well, with a nice pork flavor and a mild sweetness.
I like that the beans weren't overcooked and went real well with the rice (hiding under the egg). The menu description also mentions an Arepa, which is sort of like a pupusa, but I think I'd have been near death after that. The other table was having a few, so I think I'll save that for next time.
Yes, there will be a next time. Probably some rib soup, arepa, beans and rice. Or maybe some other soup. I really enjoyed the friendly folks working here, if not everything in the Bandeja Paisa.
The classic and for many ubiquitous Peruvian dish Lomo Saltado has a special place in my heart. It was the first "Peruvian" (the reason for the parenthesis later) dish that really drew my attention at El Rocoto Restaurant in Gardena. It made enough of an impression, that I headed off to the library (the internet really wasn't such a large part of our lives in '97) to try to find out what Peruvian cuisine was all about. There were many aspects of the dish that really resonated with me; the familiar flavors like soy sauce, cooking style, at heart the dish is a stir fry (saltado = to leap) , and yes, the carbs. Coming from Hawaii, many of my friends still say, "it ain't lunch unless it has at least two carbs!" So I found the combination of rice and papas fritas (french fries) enchanting...... Over the years I'd come to appreciate the history of the dish, a fusion of the cooking of the Chinese that settled in great numbers in Peru (Lima has the largest Chinatown in South America) Spanish (onions, garlic) and ethnic Peruvian (potatoes). Though most every version nowadays has french fries in it, I've read that the dish originally used boiled potatoes.... I've got to say that I'd probably prefer fried to boiled.
Anyway, a post comparing the lomo saltado available in San Diego has been a long time coming, so here it is:
Latin Chef ($11):
After a rather lengthy respite, I've been going back to Latin Chef quite a bit recently. So of course I was bound to have the lomo saltado again.....
Latin Chef used to have a prominent spot on our rotation, but for some reason we just kinda stopped going.
On my recent visits, it seems like the food had slipped a bit (I'll go into detail in the future post). The lomo saltado here is still my favorite in San Diego. The meat is the most tender, you can make out the soy, there's a slight tangy flavor, and the rice had always been cooked well. They seem to be depending a bit much on salt and the mild anise-mint flavor of Huacatay is missing. The papas fritas still have crunch which is a plus, as is the amount of sauce. There just seems to be something missing from this dish recently.
Latin Chef 1142 Garnet Ave San Diego, CA 92109
Nazca Grill ($10.95):
As the food at Latin Chef seems to be slipping, Nazca Grill seems to be slowly getting better:
The beef here is tougher than Latin Chef's and the main herb for flavoring seems to be cilantro. Not enough salt and lacking any tangy flavor this version still falls short for me.
Nazca Grill 4310 Genesee Ave San Diego, CA 92117
Tropical Star ($8.50):
Over the years I've come to think of Tropical Star as sort of a Latin American mom-and-pop equivalent of those diners that try to make everything. The menu is vast and not everything is really worth a try. Still, in spite of all my visits to Tropical Star, I've always stopped short of ordering the lomo saltado.... there was an inner voice that told me not to "go there". But you know that I couldn't go all these years without trying it out. So recently, I finally ordered the lomo saltado, which was the cheapest of the three..... and holy-moley, it was also the largest portion.... of grayish looking meat.....
Really tough meat, full gristle, perhaps chuck.... it gives new meaning to "2 buck chuck (steak)". My feet also started swelling up pretty quickly as I ate this. I stared at the shelves looking for some kind of packaged lomo saltado mix, since there was a powderiness to the dish as well. Funny, as I walked out, I noticed several jars of Aji-no-moto (MSG) right next to the Aji Panca on one of the shelves..... There are several items that Troplical Star does reasonably welland the prices are just as reasonable. I'd pass on the lomo saltado though.....
Tropical Star 6163 Balboa Ave San Diego, CA 92111
Typing out this post makes me think we'll need to be heading back to Peru one of these days......
Early during our first morning on Lake Atitlan, the Missus was looking out from the balcony and decided on what She wanted to do.
Looking off to the left, She turned and said, "let's head to Santiago". At first we were going to head down the 400 steps to the Lomas de Tzununa pier, but in the end we decided to head out of the side gate and walk to the village of La Tzununa, and the pier there.
The downhill walk, and the cooler morning air made this 1 kilometer walk pleasant.
Walking down the hill we passed many of the young men and women who work at the hotel walking up the hill. We could just imagine having to make that walk everyday, rain or shine, in the summer heat! Everyone we passed gave us a pleasant "Buenos Dias". We passed two gentlemen, and asked directions to "La Tzununa muelle".......after giving us directions, one of the gentlemen asked us, "Ha-pon-nese?" I pointed to myself, and told him "si, Ha-pon-nese"....I pointed at the Missus and said, "Chee-na....uno, uno". Which for some reason cracked him up.....
Following their instructions we found our way to La Tzununa pier, and soaked up the morning sun while waiting for what the gentleman called the "barco blanco".....
And wouldn't you know it, the first boat of the day was a "white boat".
A short 10 minutes later we arrived at the San Pedro pier. To get to the boats headed to Santiago we had to walk to the pier to the Southeast of town, about a kilometer away. Not a far walk, but there's a "little" hill between the piers. The street is lined with all the gift shops, tourist restaurants, and hotels.
They don't tell you about the "little hill" in the guidebooks. Lucky for us, there was a strategically placed orange juice stand right at the top of the hill.
Ahhh, "Jugo de Naranja"......the pause that refreshes. Freshly squeezed, and the woman running the stand even filtered out the pulp (3 Quetzal - 45 cents):
Kinda sour, but it sure woke me up. From that point on, it was all down hill, literally.
While waiting for our boat to leave, another large boat arrived. It was packed with passengers....
And a ton of cargo.......
All of it was unloaded manually. This guy made at least five trips up and down the pier.
Arriving at Santiago Atitlan, we walked up the dock, past the craft stands and into Santiago. It turned out to be market day.
We were told by more than a few folks that Santiago Atitlan is considered the captial of the Tz'utujil MayanNation. In Santiago, folks still wear the traditional "Traje" (dress) with pride. The men still wear "calzoncillos" (short pants).
I'm guessing that these pants are very practical for folk who live around the water.
The women wear a colorful "Huipil" sometimes with wonderful embroidery, often featuring birds and flowers. You can read even more about the traditional dress here.
Out first stop was the Catholic Church.
If you walk up these stairs, and quietly take a seat inside, you'll notice a monument to the right rear of the church.
Father Stanley Rother was a priest who was assigned to the mission of Santiago Atitlan in 1968. The late 70's through the 80's were turbulent times for Central America, and Santiago was not spared. Because of his work, Father Rother's name appeared on the list of the "Death Squad". Upon hearing that his name appeared on this list, the Parish staff urged Rother to return to his home of Oklahoma City, which he did. Only to ask for permission to, and return to Santiago a few months later. On July 28th, 1981, he was killed in the rectory of the church by gunmen. Father Rother was flown back and buried in his home town in Oklahoma, however, at the request of his parishioners in Atitlan, his heart was brought back to Santiago Stitlan and buried under the floor of the church. This was not the end as things eventually reached a critical mass on the morning of December 2nd, 1990, you can follow the link, or read even more about it here.
Escaping from the persistent kids outside the church, we made our way back to the main intersection. I noticed groups of women walking up the stairs of one of the corner buildings. Our curiosity piqued the Missus and I walked up the stairs to find a pretty active market area.
The items I found the most interesting were the freshwater crabs, with the legs wrapped in strips of leaves to keep them from walking away.
This, of course, left me hungry. The Missus and I walked around a bit trying to decide were to eat. I finally decided based on one of my main eating rules; "when in doubt, eat where the police eat." And in this case, it was a tiny, very clean looking Cevicheria. We sat at one of the three tiny tables, on plastic stools, Vietnam style. Two police, or maybe security officers with shotguns were having an early lunch at on of the other tables. One of the officers was of particular interest to me, he had two bandoliers of shotgun shells criss-crossing his torso, just like the movies!
This was a two man operation with one doing the prep, the other putting together the ceviche.
Three items were served, Ceviche Camarones(shrimp), Pulpo (Octopus), or Mixto (mixed). and though the shrimp and octopus were "Pacifico" (from the Pacific), we thought the ingredients looked very fresh. The Missus ordered a Grande Mixto, easy on the pulpo. 30 Quetzales ($3.75). While we were waiting, the Missus decided some tortillas would go well with the Ceviche, instead of the usual crackers. So She headed across the street........and to the laies making tortillas in front of (what else) one of the Pollo Frito (Fried Chicken) joints.
The tortillas being sold were "yellow" tortillas, corn-y goodness, and the best we had on the entire trip. It was also the most expensive at 3 for 1 Quetzal (12 cents).
We ended up eating a dozen with our ceviche.
And what about that Ceviche? Well, it delicious, but very different from any Ceviche I've ever had.
The marinade was very dark, but wonderful, with a nice savory flavor as a counter-point to the refreshing citrus flavor. The tomatoes were sweet, the white onion was mild and on the sweeter side, and I could taste a light touch of mint as well. When we asked about the sauce (I thought I tasted some soy as well), I thought the very nice young man said "salsa Iglesia" and I was somewhat puzzled,"Church Sauce" just didn't make much sense. But later on I purchased a small cookbook, "Favorite Recipes from Guatemala" in the airport, I found a recipe for Ceviche de Camaron. And it became quite clear, it wasn't Salsa Iglesia, it was "Salsa Ingles", Wocestershire Sauce, along with Soy Sauce that flavored the Ceviche!
I was satisfied after the Ceviche, but the Missus couldn't resist buying a tamal from the young lady wearing the coloful huipil pictured above. It was a funny thing as, the Missus kept asking "Tamale", and kept getting negative nods, "no...no tamale". She kept pointing at the corn husk wrapped tamals, going, "tamale?" And the response would be a "no-no chuchito, chuchito, no tamale!"
Chuchitos are small masa tamal, and unlike the tamals we are used to, Guatemalan tamals are dense and waxy, and tend toward the dry side. This Chuchito, at least by our tastes and preferences, was the best we had, moist, with a nice sweet-tangy-mildly spicy sauce.
The pork was very tough, but the rest was pretty good.
We had the Chuchito and some Agua Pura, while sitting on one of the raised sidewalks.....it was perfect for people.....
And pet watching.
It was starting to get crowded, which we took as a sign to get moving along. But I just wasn't ready to leave without getting a little "something small to eat".........
That's what the bird outside our window said at the crack of dawn. I awoke every morning to that distinctive call, and came to love it. I also enjoyed Antigua in the morning, at 6am, the streets are almost empty, and there are no cars in sight, as folks haven't come to work yet.
The streets are clear, the air is fresh, and the colors really pop. As we walked back to our room after grabbing some coffee, we spotted a young man selling roses.
He seemed to be quite popular with the local folk walking to work.
The Missus asked the young man what a bunch of roses cost. His reply? 10 Quetzales ($1.25)! So of course we bought a bunch.
But what the heck were we going to do with roses? We were off to Lago Atitlan (Lake Atitlan) in an hour...... We had decided to give the roses to the folks at Casa Florencia, which really surprised the Woman working. It was kinda nice to see the roses we bought blooming in a vase at the front desk when we returned from Flores a few days later!
We quickly learned the "shuttle drill"......someone will meet you at your hotel or pick-up point. He'll give you the receipt and paperwork, and you'll pay him. A bit later the minivan will be by to pick you up. The uneventful drive to beautiful Lake Atitlan took about 2 1/2 hours, driving through several villages, and winding it's way to Panajachel. We saw two shuttles stopped on the side of the road with carsick folks losing their breakfast. We were dropped at Tzanjuyú Pier (muelle), and swarmed with folks trying to get us boats, some for $20-30 a person!!! The word to remember is "publico"......there is a semi-formal system of "lanchas" that serve the various villages around the lake. We had been told that our Hotel, Lomas de Tzununa had it'sown muelle. We finally made our way down the pier, and we were squeezed into a boat. Pricing for tourist "vary" on the lanchas, this trip cost us 30 Quetzales each, which turned out to be the most expensive of all the boats we caught. And so it came to pass.....here I was wedged in the bow of a boat that seemed to barely rise above the clear waters of Atitlan, squeezed between two propane tanks, and two cases of doritos.
You've heard of Chicken Buses? Well, I called this the "Chicken Boat"! Lomas de Tzununa is a bit isolated from the other villages, and has its own pier. The water of Lago Atitlan is crystal clear, and deep.
Lomas de Tzununa is located up the cliffs from the lake.......and it's four hundred steps up to the hotel.
Doesn't sound like much, but these seemed like four hundred leg burning, lung bursting steps....I hadn't felt this wiped out since Pisac. Even though our backpacks averaged 8 kilos...it might as well have been 800! There was a really nice young man with the biggest smile, and a shotgun to match who offered to carry our luggage up the stairs, but I couldn't let him do that. Thierry, who along with his wife Maria run the hotel met us at the top, and handed us our keys so I wouldn't have to struggle with the dozen or so steps to the main hotel restaurant and lobby.
So why go through the trouble? The isolation, the four hundred steps? Well, each of the ten rooms at Lomas de Tzununa are very clean and spacious...and what you're really paying for is this:
Each room is it's own "bungalow", and are located on the cliffs above the Lake. There's no television (this will play in later), but you've got views like this morning, noon, and night:
For us, it sure beat the tourist heavy scene at Panajachel or San Pedro, whose lights you can see here at sunset.
Of course, the Missus wasn't one for sitting still for long....soon enough it was back down those four hundred steps. Standing at the dock, the Missus and I gave each other one of those, "ok, now what" looks. But not for long, right off the dock is a little cabin, and there is what seems to be a father and son, who run the private lancha, and do all the lake activities. They asked the Missus where we were headed. And as a boat was passing what seemed like a hundred miles away, he whistled. And sure enough the lancha made it's way to the muelle. This boat was not nearly as packed.
We got off at San Pedro La Laguna, a popular tourist destination, right on the Nothern Slopes of the San Pedro volcano. Our destination was a village a 2 kilometer walk from San Pedro, San Juan la Laguna. We walked along the shores of the lake,passing women doing laundry on the shores of Atitlan.
Arriving at the top of the a hill, we could view the village of San Juan below....it was such a serene sight.
We followed the few vehicles into town........it wasn't very hard....San Juan is a fairly small village, and home to Tz'utujil Mayan. It is a small, peaceful, yet colorful village.
San Juan is known for its local Artisans, and the murals made that very clear.
As in Laos, Cusco, and Siem Reap, we bought a small painting that displayed what we thought symbolized the trip for us. It was a beautiful painting, from a little shop on the way to the pier. Later we would come to know that the gentleman and his wife that we dealt with were pretty well known in the area.
We hadn't eaten since the evening before, so the Missus and I were on the lookout for a comedor. We passed several, but many were pretty empty, and I really couldn't get a good "feel" of any of the places. So the Missus started asking around. A group of schoolgirls headed home for lunch, looked at us curiously, and told the Missus "Comedor Elenita". We still weren't sure though. As we walked pass the school the Missus asked another woman, who also recommended Comedor Elenita. The woman walked us to the street and pointed us to the colorful restaurant. When we arrived, that table had pots and a tray of "pollo frito" on it that was selling like crazy.
I trudged up the rather high step(my thighs were still rather shakey from the 400 + 400 steps), peered into the place, and knew this was going to be a decent meal.
How did I know? You see those five heads on the left? Those were all Police Officers having lunch...and you know what they say about where the cops eat! The menu here was simple, the Menu "Del Dia" (menu of the day) is written on a greaseboard. The jolly gentleman who waited on us was a bit confused why we would order three items, but we were starving.
I ordered the Pollo Frito (fried chicken) which along with the Sopa de Pollo, was what we saw everyone eating. As with similar comedors, the food took a while, but it arrived with the chicken still sizzling.
There are a couple of interesting items to note. First, this was a typical meal for the area we visited.....there were three starches, in this case, rice, papas fritas (french fries), and tortillas, something for the tortillas, in this case guacamole, and some veggies thrown in for looks. I really like the guac, it was very simple, but had wonderful flavor, the avocados used for this must have been super. The fried chicken, was moist and juicy, and the flesh was soft and had flavor thorugh and through. Overall, this was in the top three with regards to fried chicken (best tasting flesh) on this trip.
The Missus ordered the Pescado Frito (fried fish).
A good sized fried fish, moist, but very mild, along with the same sides.
The Missus also ordered the Sopa de Pollo (chicken soup).
This came with a quarter of an avocado, lime, rice, and tortillas. It also came with a half cob of corn, which the Missus loved; She believes that corn in the states is much too sweet, this was more like what She ate growing up.
The soup was decently flavored, though not nearly as hearty and rich as what I had at the Mercado Central in Cusco. The meat was undoubtedly Gallina (old hen), as it should have been, tough and dry. We noticed that folks seem to think that tourists want "pechuga" (chicken breat)......which is what was got. After this, we started requesting, "no pechuga por favor".......
There was one food item I learned about during this lunch....the item on the right in the photo. In the areas we visited in Guatemala and in Copan Ruinas they called it Encurtido, and based on what the main ingredient was in it, perhaps Cebolla(onion) Encurtido, Coliflor (cauliflower) Encurtido, etc.... I made sure to request it with every meal. This version was very good, as you can tell by the jar....sweet, refreshingly sour, with a mild spicy bite.
After lunch we slowly made our way down to the muelle.
We envied this guy........
San Juan is a relaxed, and sleepy little village.
We made our way to the dock, which, just as the town, was still and peaceful.....
I couldn't help but start mumbling:
"Sittin' in the morning sun, I'll be sittin when the even comes....."
We had wondered if Lanchas would actually stop here, but sure enough, one of the boats saw us, and made its way to the pier. At this point, I felt fat and happy, but than I realized that four hundred steps was in my future!
Our flight left LAX at 1am in the morning, by the time we arrived for our connecting flight in Mexico City, the Missus was exhausted. Unfortunately, we had a six-and-a-half hour layover. The Missus, who had worked seventy or so hours in the previous six days up to our trip was totally fried. Thank God for the American Express Lounge!
The Missus collapsed from exhaustion on one of the couches, while I checked the internet, and managed to catch a couple of movies...all of which I'd seen before, but it helped pass the time. Another benefit, which didn't become apparent until later, was that we were the only folks in the lounge. This minimized contact with anyone who could have been carrying the dreaded swine flu, which had not yet become major news.
We arrived, bouncing over the cobblestone streets of Antigua to our hotel, the Hotel Casa Florencia (more on that later) at about 430 in the afternoon. The first thing we did after stowing our bags was to take a walk around the city. Central Antigua itself is not very large, and easy to navigate. The streets are set-up in a grid pattern, the Avenidas go north - south, the Calles go east - west. As with most cities, towns, and villages, the center of town is marked with a Parque Central.
The town itself is colorful, and picturesque, but there's one landmark that seemed to always be in view. It is the Volcan de Agua, which rises over the beaming, bright, and vivid city.
Located to the south, Volcan de Agua seems part guardian, standing protectively over Antigua, and yet, it also seems to loom somewhat menacingly above the city at the same time. Mudslides, eruptions, and earthquakes play a very large part in the history of Antigua. The city was once the capital of Guatemala, but after a large earthquake in in 1717 which destroyed over 3,000 structures, followed by a whole series of earthquakes in 1773, the capital was moved to the current location of Guatemala City, and Antigua was mostly abandoned. You can still see many ruins about and around the city.
You can always find your way in Antigua, by finding Volcan de Agua.....just look south.
Parque Central is the heart of the city, with the Cathedral of San Jose, and the central fountain.
With its lactating maidens.....
Of all the structures around Parque Central, I was always drawn to the Palace of the Captains General, which borders the entire south side of Parque Central.
Once the Spanish Colonial Government was located in this building, which has been destroyed, damaged, and rebuilt after several earthquakes, the last of which was in 1976. Perhaps it was the 27 arches that lined each floor, or the play of light and shadow........
And yet, one just had to glance south to see....
Another symbol of Antigua is the famed Arch of Santa Catalina.
First completed in 1693, it was built to allow Nuns of the Convent of Santa Catalina to fulfill the conditions of cloister, out of public view and contact, to access a vegetable garden across the street.
And yet, the Volcan de Agua looms above this Antigua icon as well.
One only need look up while navigating the cobblestone streets....
Somehow that volcano managed to get itself into most of out photos of Antigua.
In the mornings, when I opened the door of our room at the Casa Florencia, guess what greeted me?
Even now, as I look south, I fully expect to see Volcan de Agua in the the distance......
And then there's Pollo Campero.....which seems like an inauspicious first meal. But one must remember that many folks consider Pollo Campero to be Guatemala's gift to the food world. Founded in 1971, Pollo Campero is literally translated to mean "Country Chicken", and now has branches in 11 countries, including one in Shanghai! Now I've had Pollo Campero in the states, there are several locations in the LA area, and truth be told, I was underwhelmed by greasy and dry chicken. But, I had been told that PC in Guatemala was a different story; and seeing all the folks with bags of PC at La Aurora Airport was an affirmation.
After stowing our backpacks, I spoke to the very nice young lady at the front desk of our hotel. Like many folks we ran into in Guatemala, they found my questions about food, a bit well strange and humorous. The young lady brought one of those handy dandy maps out from under the desk, and marked off some of the important places for us; the banks, the large grocery in town, and of course the two Pollo Campero locations. There was one caveat, we were assured that the 5 Avenida Norte location was much better than the location next to the market. The 5 Avenida Norte outlet is just down the block from The Arch, and you can either get in line for "para lleva" (take0out), or take a seat in the pretty large dining area.
The Pollo Frito at Campero has a distinctive smell.....much like In-n-Out, you can pick up the scent blocks away. As we entered PC, we suddenly realized that in addition to being exhausted.....we were pretty hungry as well, and went a bit crazy ordering.....
The Missus wanted some greens so we started with the Ensalada de Casa (House salad - 35Q/$4.25):
A fairly routine salad, topped with what seemed like "Pechuguitas" (chicken breast strips), which were mildly spicy.
We also ordered a "Torta Sensasion" (Pollo Torta - 15Q/$1.85).
A basic chicken sandwich.......one thing we noticed in Guatemala, is that they like their bread really dry, and crumbly. We never quite got used to that. The Missus, who is not fond of frijoles, instantly fell in love with the way frijole negro is made in Guatemala. It is rich and creamy, with a nice flavor. Still, this was just a chicken sandwich.
There was something on the menu I just had to try......the Campero Dog (10Q/$1.25). I saw folks buying dozens of this.......the PC outlets in Flores and La Aurora Airport even had 2 for 18 Quetzal specials.
It seemed like this dog had been finished in the deep fryer. Topped with guacamole, coleslaw, and ketchup(!), this just looked wrong. It was pretty good, especially topped with PC's "Salsa Picante", the green stuff, which was tangy, spicy, and mildly sweet....we ended up using it on everything...even as pseudo-salad dressing!
I'd eat it on shoe leather! The ketchup however, was not our thing, it was waaay too sweet.
And of course we had some chicken...."traditional" (2 pieces - 23Q/$2.75):
Man was this better than in the states....crisp, non-greasy, with a wonderful flavor! It tasted close to broasted.
Another thing that PC in Guatemala has over those in the states are these ladies:
In front of every Pollo Campero you'll find ladies sitting with wicker baskets covered with cloth. These ladies are selling tortillas. Which sell for about 4 tortillas per Quetzal (12 cents).
Wrapped in brown paper, these tortillas are a perfect partner to Pollo Campero's Pollo Frito....heck, I even just ate the tortillas with the salsa picante on them. On several nights....tired from a day of hikes or travel from town to town, we settled in for two pieces of Pollo Campero, tortillas, and of course, salsa picante.
If you want to do it one better, a few streets away (actually everything is pretty much a few streets away in Antigua), you can find a Tortilleria like this one:
These shops are usually tiny windowless rooms with a hot comal constantly going. The heat is oppressive, and it is usually a young woman making the tortillas....the constant stacatto "patt-patt-pat-pat-pat" heard outside the door.
In Guatemala, tortillas are made with only masa and water. The young lady in this shop, named Susanna, was very nice, and explained that there are three basic types of tortillas in Guatemala, white, yellow, and black.
Susanna was only seventeen, and worked in these conditions everyday, we could imagine how hot it got in the room.......it was a humbling experience. We ended up sharing one of our tamals with her. A few days later we walked by the shop, Susanna saw me, and gave me a big smile, and a hearty wave....I guess we kinda stood out here.
Pollo Campero is not cheap by Guatemala standards, but we've seen those women selling tortillas getting on Chicken Buses with boxes of Pollo Frito. That says something. We ate at five different locations of Pollo Campero on this trip, and this location was the best, the Flores location the worst(stay away from the Papas Fritas)....it was like the stuff I had in LA. So what makes the chicken at PC better in Guatemala...who knows, maybe it's the "manteca" (L-A-R-D)? But it is better.
Folks in Guatemala sure love their Pollo Frito.....but lest you think that's all we ate......stay tuned!