Guatemalan rice tamales resemble distant cousins of Chinese zongzi. (Luke Tsai)
You could spend a week eating your way through the Bay Area tamale-verse and never encounter the same style twice. I love them all—the jiggly Salvadoran tamales sold in the back of a liquor store, the sweet dessert tamales flecked with pineapple bits, the mole-drenched Oaxacan ones wrapped in banana leaves.
But until I stumbled on Richmond’s Antojitos Guatemaltecos, I’d never once eaten a Guatemalan ricetamal. I’d never even heard of them.
As it turns out, rice tamales are delicious, in addition to being a well-loved regional specialty. And they’re just one of a slew of tasty, hard-to-find dishes customers can score at this little Guatemalan food cart, which posts up outside a 23rd Street panadería five nights a week.
Yury Aguilar, who runs the business along with her husband Carlos Pool and sisters Marleny Aguilar and Yasmin Edelma, says tamales are by far the cart’s most popular items— and not just the ones made with rice. The rice tamales are a highly regionalized specialty even within Guatemala. But in Aguilar's hometown of San Marcos, in the western part of the country, people eat more rice tamales than the more typical versions made with corn masa, she explains.
For those, the “masa” is made by adding water to ground-up rice to form a dough, which gets wrapped inside banana leaves and steamed with other ingredients typical of Central American–style tamales—red peppers and exceptionally tender chicken, in this case. For me, the rice tamale reminded me of nothing more than zongzi, the leaf-wrapped rice bundles of the Chinese food world—a little bit soupier and less sticky, but with the same nostalgic and deeply comforting savoriness. Drizzled with a little bit of the cart’s housemade hot sauce, it was exceptional. (Of course I’m hardly the first person to draw the connection between tamales and zongzi, or “joong” in Cantonese. Oakland Chinatown shopkeepers, for instance, have long marketed zongzi as “Chinese tamales.”)
Aguilar says not all of her customers know about the rice tamales, but they’ve garnered their own fanbase. She has one Filipino customer who even calls ahead to order a sweet version that Antojitos Guatemaltecos can make by request. She’ll add some sugar to the rice dough and fill it with a sweet chocolate-based mole and a hard-boiled egg.
In fact, the cart offers a whole education in Guatemalan tamales, even apart from the ones made with rice. Its traditional corn-based tamales are done in the Central American style, in which the masa gets steamed twice so that the texture is extra jiggly and almost pudding-like in its consistency. It sells chuchitos, miniature corn husk–wrapped tamales that are denser and more similar to the Mexican style, served topped with cheese and salsa. And it also sells pachas, or potato tamales—that is, tamales whose masa base is made with mashed potatoes—which Aguilar says are very common throughout Guatemala.
The cart’s other most popular item is atol de elote, a hot corn beverage that Guatemalans like to drink when they’re eating tamales, Aguilar explains. But really, everything on the menu is exceptional—especially the eggy and wonderfully savory chiles relleños, and the tender chicken leg stewed in light, mole-like sauce.
Aguilar says when she and her husband started the business in 2015, they just sold tamales from the back of their car. They’ve operated Antojitos Guatemaltecos as a licensed street cart since 2019, though of course COVID put a damper on business for a while. But the tamales have cultivated a big local following over the years, not just among Guatemalan customers but also Mexicans, Salvadorans and Hondurans. So, Aguilar says, they feel ready to take the next step toward their ultimate dream: opening a brick-and-mortar Guatemalan restaurant somewhere in Richmond or San Pablo.
“Maybe Guatemalan people are shy to open a place, but our food is also good,” Aguilar says. “We had a couple chances before. This time we’re ready.”
Antojitos Guatemaltecos is open 3–10 pm every day except Tuesdays and Sundays. On Saturdays, they open early, at 10 or 11 am. The cart is located outside Panadería Guatemalteca at 653 23rd St. in Richmond. Cash only.
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