Tamale Time!

Photo by Matt OttoEvery Mesoamerican nation produces tamales, but those from Guatemala are the grandest. The country's take on this primordial dish is more complex than that of its Mexican neighbor, exhibiting layers of taste that are a welcome counterpoint to the blunt corn assault of the north. Their consistency is softer than those of Mexico, but thankfully, they don't approach the runny goop that characterizes Honduran and Salvadoran tamales. Most impressively, chapín tamales come wrapped in a moist banana leaf that imparts a gentle brush of the fruit's flavor upon its new innards.

Jovial women make these masa miracles every day at Santa Ana's Panadería y Antojitos Guatemala, one of the county's two Guatemalan concerns. They toil in the store's kitchen, the pat-pat of their gnarled hands pounding tamales into form serving as a pleasing morning soundtrack. Once finished, the women place their steaming blocks into an always-hot pot located on a table in front of the store's counter. Customers pick out their tamales, usually grabbing 10 at a time to take home. At $1.50 a pop, almost everyone can afford such gluttony.

The humble tamale is the most extravagant element of Panadería Guatemala, which doesn't even consider itself a restaurant. It advertises itself primarily as a bakery, churning out such culinary curios as sugary, cylindrical gusanos (worms) and a cornbread-like pastry called a quesadilla with sesame—not cheese—overtones. A rectangular counter buckling under the weight of fresh pan dulce takes up most of the store; the only other furnishings are three tables, a convenience-store refrigerator chilling an impressive array of syrupy fruit nectars, and an oversized ice cooler filled with chocolate-covered plantains and the sublime vanilla cream icee topo.

The shop does a brisk business selling these and other Guatemalan products such as powerfully herbed longaniza sausages and a bitter, powdered cheese known as zacapa. But hidden among this compaction are antojitos (snacks) that are well worth the search. Behind the nectars in the refrigerator are ready-to-heat cases of rellenitos, fat, fried bananas encasing black beans so sweet they nearly assume the physical quality of chocolate. Another section of the fridge houses Guatemalan chile rellenos, a sharp bell pepper distended with bits of pork, carrots and potato. Both the rellenitos and chile rellenos are frozen—they're Guatemalan microwave treats—but the shopkeeper will gladly heat them up by request.

Panadería Guatemala also sells Guatemalan enchiladas (their version being similar to what Mexicans call tostadas) and tostadas (similar to what Mexicans call tortillas frita con frijoles negros), although they're prepared only on weekends and are frequently gone by midday. But rest assured, tamales will always be available. Even if the tamale pot is empty, wait five minutes and a fresh batch will be ready.

The variety and quality of Panadería Guatemala's tamales are remarkable considering its non-restaurant status. Their pork tamales feature a salsa that's slopped on top of the masa rather than baked within. Messy as it may be, it's well-worth the stains. Tamales de chilpín are wet and slightly bland, but they are freshened with leaves of the Guatemalan mint for which they are named; it's the ultimate Mayan meat-free meal. Chicken tamales somehow keep the meat crispy inside the soft masa—let's see the Mexicans do that!

And then there are the chuchitos and paches. Chuchitos, mini tamales bound with corn husks, are ferociously hearty. What little meat is enclosed in a chuchito's sturdy masa is greasy and softer than Jell-O; biting into it is like eating a pre-Columbian jelly doughnut. In a country of outstanding tamales, though, the finest are paches. It's the potato-based masa studded with chewy chunks of the tuber that makes paches so wonderful. Or maybe it's the paches' average size, approximately the size of a paperback Tom Clancy novel. Perhaps the skinny jalapeño and two whole chicken wings inside the pache is what makes this tamale so grand. Like the Trinity, there exists no complete explanation for paches' beatific quality. They just are.

Panadería y Antojitos Guatemala, 1331 E. First St., Ste. A, Santa Ana, (714) 542-4223. Open daily, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $4, food only. Cash only.

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