Asia brims with delightful cuisines, but does anyone rave about Central Asian food? And of the great cuisines of Europe that fly off the tongue – Italian, French, Greek – none come from its center. Then there's the United States. How many times have aspiring chefs ever googled “Middle American cuisine” for inspiration?
And so it goes for Central America.
The prevailing spirit of the food there is captured quite nicely by plato tipico, the ubiquitous phrase scrawled on sandwich boards across the region.
And what does a typical Central American plate consist of, you ask? It varies almost imperceptibly as one crosses borders: wash basin soup, a chunk of fried meat, rice or potatoes, beans and corn tortillas — all in a spice orientation that cries out for the nearest bottle of hot sauce.
But there were moments. And some very tasty, genuine ones at that. From pupusas to pepian, if you look hard enough here's what you might find.
Skip ahead to what interests you most:
Pupusas: The Salvadoran Staple
Although the pupusa (stuffed tortilla fried on a griddle) hails from El Salvador, it is standard fare across Central America. The dough is made from moist, freshly ground corn. Fillings vary, but bean paste and cheese are typical.
Best: Pupusa competition is fierce, but a street stall in Juayua, El Salvador takes the prize. Take a seat at one of the rickety tables behind the grill and enjoy pupusas filled with a combination of bean, cheese and a dab of chicharron (pork rind) paste. Pile on generous helpings of curtido (slightly pickled cabbage topping) and hot sauce. Four pupusas for $0.80 makes for an inexpensive and filling meal.
Baleadas: The Honduran Standard
After two months of eating corn tortillas in Guatemala, we welcomed a change of grain in Honduras. Baleadas, stuffed wheat flour tortillas, are thicker and less symmetric than their Mexican cousins and are most often spread with a thin layer of refried beans, shredded cheese, and sour cream before being turned over into a half moon. In the morning, scrambled eggs are tossed in for an ideal breakfast comfort food creation.
Best: A small no-name cafe on the main square in La Esperanza, Honduras. The stand at the very back of the market in Copan Ruinas, Honduras is pretty good, too.
Taco Guatemalteco vs. Taco Nicaraguense
At the next pan-American taco conference, disagreement will reign supreme. For the Guatemalans will argue “small, thin, soft, fresh corn tortillas” and the Nicaraguans will counter with “thicker, larger, rolled up like Mexican taquitos, and fried.”
Each country features a different take on the taco, but Guatemala's tacos chapines (or tacos Guatemaltecos) proved the tastiest in the region. Shredded pork or chicken cooked au jus on a comal, served in between sauce-soaked corn tortillas, topped with cabbage salad, lime juice and hot sauce. Versus the Nicaraguan taco – shredded meat and mayonnaise stuffed into a thick rolled tortilla, deep-fried and topped with cabbage and thin sour cream. There is no contest.
Best on the street: Unable to resist following the local crowd, we disregarded our Guatemalan host family's warning about eating on the street at Democracia market in Xela. Five quetzals ($0.70) for a large taco serving with four tortillas. Fresh, delicious…and no stomach ills.
Best sit-down: Doña Berta in Xela, Guatemala. What puts this joint at the top of the list? Its condiments. Four varieties of salsas featuring every desired level of heat. Nine quetzals ($1.20) for three chicken tacos. At 10 Avenida and 6 Calle.
Other Central American street food favorites:
- Enchilada: In Guatemala, a fried tortilla topped with all manner of ground meat and colorful vegetables and — brace yourself — mayonnaise! And if you are thinking to yourself “this looks a lot like a tostada to me,” you are not alone.
- Chuchito: Guatemalan corn tamale roasted in a corn husk. Something like a Mexican tamale, but often much drier and doorstop-like, particularly after languishing atop hot coals for hours.
- Chile Relleno: The fried, stuffed pepper staple. A sweet pepper stuffed with shredded meat and vegetables, covered and fried in batter. Smothered in tomato sauce and, in Guatemala, stuffed between tortillas.
- Tamales: Guatemalan tamales are composed of ground rice meal and served warm in a plantain leaf. For the most authentic, grab a few for a sunrise street breakfast at the San Francisco El Alto market.
- Anafres: A Honduran dish composed of giant tortilla chips, bean fondue and cheese. A very exotic Honduran way of saying “big tortilla chips and bean dip.”
- Garnachas: Guatemalan (Oaxacan, really) dish of crispy, fried tortillas topped with ground meat and other savory toppings.
- Vigoron: a Nicaraguan fritanga favorite of steamed yucca, topped with chicharron (pork rinds) and cabbage.
Every now and then, a Central American dish will inspire you to find the nearest kitchen so you can attempt it yourself. That's tapado, a Garifuna-influenced coconut milk-based soup stuffed full of seafood (crab, conch, whole fish, sea snails and shrimp), green plantains and fresh herbs (basil, cilantro, parsley).
Our favorite tapado was served by Antijitos Gaby in Livingston, Guatemala. It's so loaded, so rich that one bowl ($8) will feed two people for the entire day.
Holiday-time often makes for some of the best eating. In Guatemala, Semana Santa (Holy Week) is no exception. Special breads, dishes, sweets and drinks are all prepared for the week-long festivities. Best of all: pepian, a dish of lightly-browned chicken served in a rich sauce of roasted sesame seeds, squash seeds, tomatoes and dried chili peppers.
Once we learned how to make pepian with our Spanish teachers in Xela, we sampled it whenever we had the chance. But the first taste was the best; no others approached the depth of the sauce shepherded in the tiny kitchen of our Spanish language school. Check out the recipe and video showing how we prepared it.
Central America, full of lakes and flanked by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, has an odd relationship with seafood. Perhaps, like coffee, all the good fish is exported. Or maybe the waters have been polluted and over-fished. Whatever the cause, seafood is not the people's food. It's neither plentiful nor inexpensive.
But there are always bright spots.
Yes, we know. The real ceviche is in Peru. But there's this happy dude named Chon on the fringes of Antigua, Guatemala who knows how to mix it up with just the right combination of lime juice, salsa picante, vinegar, and English sauce (Worcestershire more or less). Look for him in front of El Calvario church, suspend your bias and ignore the fact that eating shrimp out of a plastic cooler sounds dicey. If you miss Chon, check out Carolina cevicheria in the underground food court beneath the main market in Xela. Good licuados (shakes), too.
Other seafood bites of note:
- Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua: Just when you've thrown in the kitchen towel in your quest for something edible in Nicaragua, you'll stumble over the fish at Monkey Island Guest House. Rubbed and grilled…just nice.
- Utila Island, Honduras: When the cook's brother is a fisherman and the owner is Italian, you know you're going to eat well. At Babalu Restaurant, Dado has guided his kitchen staff in dishing out a sauteed shrimp meal worthy of the sunset view. Garlic, white wine, cream and a dash of soy sauce.
- Livingston, Guatemala: Maria, the gregarious owner of Tilingo Lingo and the self-proclaimed “only Mexican in Livingston,” serves up a delicious garlic shrimp quesadilla with roasted tomato salsa. It may not be authentic Mexican fare, but it's complete comfort food. Note that this dish is not on the standard menu so you'll have to ask Maria nicely to make it especially for you.
Is brunch a Central American institution?
Not by a banana republic mile. But there are enough gringos running around the place. And some of them do right by brunch.
- Hotel Marina Vista Rio in Rio Dulce, Guatemala: Eggs benedict. The real deal. Perfectly poached eggs, slightly tangy hollandaise sauce, and homemade English muffins.
- Dave's Shark Pit in Leon, Nicaragua: Perfectly blended ranchera sauce featuring just the right balance of onion, tomato and spices – on top of lightly fried eggs. The kicker? Avocado and a healthy slice of brie on the side of the plate. A breakfast big enough to feed two for $3.50.
- Finca La Casita near Esteli, Nicaragua: A locally run organic farm two kilometers from Esteli, Finca La Casita serves up homemade organic yogurt, freshly baked bread and fresh cheeses in a peaceful garden setting. The prices are reasonable and so worth the $1 taxi ride.
Coban Chili Sauce
Most restaurant tables in Central America feature a bottle of commercial hot sauce whose red fluorescence often draws doubts as to the organic nature of its composition. Enter coban chili sauce from Coban, Guatemala. This is real honest-to-goodness chili sauce — as in roasted, crushed Coban peppers mixed with a little oil. We wondered, if only for a moment, whether we were back in Asia. Then we ate rice, beans and tortillas; our whereabouts were clear again.
Commercial Hot Sauce
As for the commercial stuff, you've got your choice. Picamas red, Picamas green, Lizano and all those odd, vinegary Honduran tabasco sauces. Which one do we recommend carrying in your backpack? Picamas red from Guatemala.
Is avocado a condiment? In our world, sometimes yes. The ideal topping for any Central American meal.
The story of coffee in Central America is simple: the good stuff is packaged for export. With a few exceptions, what's left to consume are the dregs.
Coffee plantations are strewn across Central America, but you won't often find folks drinking much of their local joe. The pleasant exception: La Esperanza, Honduras. Coffee beans of all varieties are sold at the local market — some raw, some roasted. And stalls inside the market serve up decent, strong cups of coffee for $0.20.
Best barrista coffee
One of the by-products of the Spanish language student base in Xela, Guatemala: coffee shops to keep students buzzing on caffeine. The best cup: $1 café cortado at Memories Coffee Shop (and toy museum) on 15 Avenida 3-64.
The argument over the best beer in Central America is about as relevant as the discourse on the best wine in the Czech Republic.
Most Central American beers are some form of a very light pilsener (think Gallo, Salva Vida, La Victoria, Toña). But Moza, Guatemala's darker and bitter brew is the exception and perhaps the most interesting of the bunch. Of the regular brews circulating, Port Royal from Honduras gets our nod for most drinkable.
Beer distributors in Central America are remarkable for their distribution efficiency. Even the smallest, most remote tiendas (shops) feature industrial-strength refrigerators set below freezing so bottles give off satisfying plumes of frost when they hit that hot, humid Central American air.
We know, we know. What about Costa Rica, Panama and Belize? When we get around to visiting them (after South America), we’ll be sure to give them their due. Until then, we focus on the CA-4 (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua).