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.
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.