Visions of Purple Dinosaurs at Tierras Centro Americanas
We sat waiting for our caldo de camarones with keen anticipation. According to the menu, this hearty Guatemalan soup contained chipilín. Not to be confused with chapulin, or grasshopper (a favorite crunchy snack across the border in Chiapas, Mexico), chipilín comprises the shoots and leaves of Crotalaria longirostrata, a flowering weed known in English as "longbeak rattlebox." According to a research abstract in the journal Economic Botany, chipilín is commonly eaten as a vegetable in Guatemala. Rich in calcium, iron, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and ascorbic acid, it's also regarded as a soporific, with peasants who eat it reportedly becoming calm, spacey, and sleepy.
A carload of friends and I were sitting in Tierras Centro Americanas, on a side street just off Jamaica's bustling Hillside Avenue, a place easy to get to by subway since the F rushes beneath the street. Tierras is the city's sole Guatemalan eatery, a double storefront featuring a kitchen and carry-out on one side and a small dining room on the other, predictably decorated with folkloric artifacts and mountain landscapes. The menu has a Salvadoran page, too, but I urge you to skip it, not only because there's better Salvadoran elsewhere on Hillside Avenue, but also because Guatemalan food is so damn good—and unusual, in a mind-bending sort of way.
When the caldo de camarones ($10) arrived, we were not disappointed. The bowl teemed with large shrimp still possessing their heads, antennae, and beady eyes. You may wince, but this is a very good sign, since—as every Cajun cook knows—all the flavor of the shrimp resides in the pink-tinged head fat. In spite of a deceptively light broth, the cilantro-scented soup was rich-tasting, with chipilín floating on top, consisting of flimsy green stems and translucent yellow-green leaves. I pulled up a big greenish gob and chewed it thoughtfully. Suddenly, I pitched forward into the soup, purple dinosaurs swimming before my eyes.
No, just kidding. As we sat waiting for the soporific effects to kick in, we consumed a thoroughly enjoyable meal. There was a plate of chuchitos ($1.50)—corn-husk tamales stuffed with chicken in a pepper-dotted sauce called recado. We also eagerly devoured longaniza ($3.50)—scarlet pork sausages flavored with mint. The longaniza and accompanying lime wedges came perched on a stack of iceberg lettuce leaves, suggesting the sausages be eaten Vietnamese-style, by wrapping them in lettuce. Another thing that seemed positively Southeast Asian was salpicon, which freaked us out in its resemblance to a Thai larb: chopped pork tossed with purple onions, red radishes, mint, and lime juice, heaped abundantly on the plate and offered with a big serving of polished white rice. You won't quite know what to do with the rice—though mixing it with the salad isn't a bad idea, making a main course that feeds two or three.
The highlight of the meal proved to be revolcado ("mixture," $8), a stew made dozens of different ways across the Guatemalan countryside. The one at Tierras included cow heart and pork shoulder in a thick broth that tasted positively pre-Columbian. The revolcado was served with a stack of homemade white-corn tortillas, which have half the circumference and twice the thickness of their Mexican counterparts, leaving the masa in the middle gloriously squishy.
On subsequent visits, we tried to cover the long menu by picking the most poetic-sounding stuff. Jacon ($9) was the absolute high point—two pieces of chicken in a fiery green purée, perfectly paired with wedges of chayote, but also sporting a handful of green beans that seemed so lost that they stuck their heads out of the broth and asked me for directions.
Oops, that's the chipilín talking again. We were really starting to crave the pharmacological vegetable. Dare I say, like every other food writer in town, that it was "addictive." I'm pretty sure there was some in the jacon, and we also consumed it in the tamalitos de chipilín ($1.50), banana-leaf-wrapped tamales larger than their name would suggest. Now tasting more like kelp, the slippery leaves spilled out every time we took a bite.
The only thing we didn't like at Tierras Centro Americanas was the shrimp ceviche ($10). Certainly, the shrimp were fresh, but they came mired in a thick, red goo that caused one companion to quip: "Hmm, Central American ketchup." I later discovered that Guatemalan ceviches are eaten as tortilla toppings, rather than as soups or salads. The Guatemalan ceviche still struck us as too sweet, but then, so is shrimp cocktail in a steakhouse.
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