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A New Guatemalan Restaurant Brings Central American Flavors to El Cerrito

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Overhead view of a Guatemalan churrasco chapin plate: steak, rice, potato salad, fried plantains, cheese, and little tubs of salsa and refried beans.
The churrasco chapin is one of the very typical traditional Guatemalan plates that diners can find at Antojitos Guatemaltecos, a new restaurant in El Cerrito. (Luke Tsai/KQED)

When Yury Aguilar and her husband Carlos Pool first started selling tamales from the trunk of their car back in 2015, it was hard for them to even imagine what it would be like to open an actual restaurant. An entire restaurant selling nothing but traditional Guatemalan dishes like tamales de arroz and pepián de pollo? How many customers could they count on to support something like that?

Quite a few, it turns out. After cultivating a loyal fanbase for their tamales in the Richmond area for the past seven years, the Aguilar family — Pool, Aguilar and several of her brothers and sisters — opened their first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Antojitos Guatemaltecos, in El Cerrito this past December. The San Pablo Ave. storefront is an expansion of the family’s tamal cart business, which two of the Aguilar siblings continue to operate in Richmond.

Aguilar’s initial doubts were understandable: Despite the region’s growing Guatemalan population, the Bay Area doesn’t really have an established Guatemalan dining scene, apart from a handful of panaderías and informal food stalls that have sprung up in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. But no one should be sleeping on Guatemalan food, mostly because it’s delicious, with unique charms that set it apart from the Bay Area’s more widely recognized Mexican and Salvadoran food scenes.

Seven family members in matching black shirts pose inside their restaurant, Antojitos Guatemaltecos.
Pictured from left to right inside Antojitos Guatemaltecos: Carlos Pool and Yury, Marleny, Yasmin, Edilma, Melany and Josue Aguilar. Not pictured is Azriel Aguilar, the seventh Aguilar sibling who helped open this family business. (Courtesy of Antojitos Guatemaltecos)

The new Antojitos Guatemaltecos restaurant is the perfect place to cozy up to some of the greatest hits of the cuisine. If you haven’t had them before, you’ll want to start with a sampling of the Aguilars’ tamales, which have long been the staple of the business. They’re available not only in the exceptionally tender, jiggly Central American style, but also in lesser-known varieties that aren’t made with corn masa — exquisitely flavorful rice tamales and the potato tamales known as paches.

Now that the Aguilars have a full kitchen to work out of, they’re also able to offer hot food that’s cooked to order, not just reheated, for the first time. The best lunch I’ve eaten so far in 2023 was the restaurant’s churrasco chapin — Guatemala’s answer to a Mexican restaurant’s carne asada plate, Aguilar explains. It comes with a thin cut of well-seasoned steak, two slabs of sausage, rice, refried beans, fried plantains served with queso fresco and a dab of sour cream, a kind of savory potato salad that Guatemalans call ensalada rusa and thick, piping-hot corn tortillas. By any standard, it’s an elite-level lunch or dinner plate.

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Other menu staples include the estofada de res, a kind of beef stew that Aguilar says she learned how to cook back in Guatemala when she was 13 years old, and started working at a restaurant that served dishes associated with the country’s indigenous Mam community. To drink, there’s agua de nance, a sweet, refreshing juice made from a tropical fruit that resembles a yellow cherry.

A display shelf stocked full of Central American chips and other snacks.
A display of Central American snacks, including an assortment of Tortrix brand chips and Diana jalapeño-flavored tortilla chips. (Luke Tsai)

Perhaps most exciting to homesick Guatemalan immigrants, the restaurant has also started serving fried chicken that’s similar in style to Pollo Campero — a Central American chain so beloved that Guatemalan Americans are known to stuff their suitcases with huge boxes of the chicken every time they fly back from their home country. What distinguishes the fried chicken, Aguilar says, is that the batter is lighter than the typical American style, and they use a seasoning blend that they ship in from Guatemala.

In the month since Antojitos Guatemaltecos has opened, Aguilar says the most surprising thing is how diverse the customer base has been — not just Guatemalans, not just regulars from the tamal cart, but also locals from all different backgrounds who have poked their heads in the restaurant, curious about the cuisine.

“I was so afraid that people would not accept our food,” Aguilar says. “Guatemalan food is not popular in the world. But I’m very happy. People from everywhere have come.”

Exterior of the Antojitos Guatemaltecos restaurant with a yellow facade and a handful of outdoor tables on the sidewalk.
Now open in El Cerrito. (Luke Tsai)

The Antojitos Guatemaltecos restaurant is open Tue.–Sat., from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., at 11252 San Pablo Ave. in El Cerrito. The tamal cart is open Mon.–Sat., 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., outside Panadería Guatemalteca at 653 23rd St. in Richmond. Cash only.

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