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On Many Menus in Central America (in Antigua, Guatemala, and Belize)
Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Summer Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(2) page: 30 - 33
ANTIGUAis a small tourist haven loaded with folks selling necklaces and other jewelry, scarves and other clothes, and lots of kitsch. Scattered among them are different kinds of fast food, and some places called Chinese restaurants. In the three days we are there, we hear about six of them but only locate four, none with a Chinese chef.
A local tour guide says to go to Gran Muralla across the street from McDonalds. This 'Great Wall' place is at number 18 on Calle 4 and he says it has a Chinese chef. In actuality, we find it across from a Burger King. It is never open at lunch or dinner on the three days we are there.
The Chinese restaurants we do locate cook pseudo-Chinese food. At most of them, customers call and the restaurant delivers by motor bike, their rear-boxes filled with their food. The only chap we see eating in one has food piled high on a paper plate.
One of the Chinese eateries does tout four kinds of Chow Mein, Chop Suey, Arros Frito, and Sopa Mein, and a few 'Especials.' It has two small dreary rooms with tables and a small bathroom-size kitchen with two woks and a very small refrigerator. A few folk come in to claim their orders and they get them in plastic bags, rubber bands sealing the contents, their bags placed firmly in red take-out boxes.
One day, we go to Restaurante Su-Chow, a small clean spot with all of the above dishes plus Tacos Chinos, Wantan Frito, and a total of two dozen chicken, beef, shrimp, pork, and fish dishes. Most indicate they come with rice, some with 'Pastel del Dia' which is their 'cake of the day.' Here, one can order Papas Fritas, translated as 'Frech Fried' and Bread with Garlic, sandwiches with chicken, ham or beef, and a 'Steam Rice Ball.' Below these offerings, an almost afterthought, the menu says: "Soups, Duck, Beberages, Beers, and More." Below that it says, "delivery s Gratis." Not enticed at a single Chinese place, we skip Chinese food in Antigua.
GUATEMALA CITY has many great fruit and fresh food markets, and a large Chinese food presence. There are about twenty upscale Chinese restaurants, and many more Chinese take-outs. There are also non-Chinese comfy eateries where some of us sit with Micky there and learn that one local Toyota dealer owns all fifty-two McDonalds, one four stories tall, two of them underground. Other big players own lots of one-eatery types. A few years ago Walmart bought the twenty-five or so Paiz supermarkets and we find that several of them carry many Asian ingredients.
We skip J.K. Mings, whose New Jersey owner serves Peking Duck, plantains, and more foods with mixed messages. Instead, we head to the several Chinese restaurants touted as very good. Their food is basic Cantonese adding a few dishes made spicy. The latter imitate Sichuan or Hunan food simply adding a mite of hot oil or a tiny piece of piquant pepper. Organ meats, casseroles, and regional foods have yet to make it to this city. Some Cantonese dishes remind of swimming New York Chinese food circa the 1950s, and a few are OK to great. We always need a Chinese food fix so we do indulge in some Chinese food in this city trying out the following places.
Later, as we eat, she becomes more agitated as she watches us take notes. However, when the food arrives and we tell her the Carne de Marrano Libra, a plain roast pork, is as tasty as ever, she smiles, relaxes, and asks if we want to try Chop Suey de Pollo con Semilla de Marañón. We do and this stir-fried chicken dish is no relative to any chop suey in the United States. It is an upscale relative with lots of green peppers and a load of extra cashews, probably added for our pleasure. We dig in and are amazed at how delicious chop suey in Guatemala is.
Most Cantonese dishes here are simple with little sauce or seasoning. A few are Cantonese made piquant. Someone told us this eatery is changing its name but we forgot to ask about that and what they planned to do with their hand-painted dishes. Hope the old, faded, dusty awning becomes history, too.
We do experience one disappointment, their exceptionally strong tea. After one taste we can not drink it, so ask for hot water. Even with the increasingly attentive service, it never does arrive. Learn later, in Guatemala they love tea so strong that a spoon stands at attention.
LAI LAI at 12 Calle 5-27, Zona 9, Guatemala City, their phone: 2366-6350 is where we go next. It is, many locals say, soon to be called Yi Hou. We get no confirmation of this even asking three times. The local telephone directory, and some advertisements say there are many restaurants with the above name, including one in Montufar, another in Paseo San Sebastian, and probably others here and elsewhere. A guide had suggested we visit this one so we did meander here. However, it is closed between lunch and dinner and our time is limited, so need to move on even though we want to try their roast pork, here called cha siu and their fish rolls called Tacos de Pescado. Outside, the painted Chop Suey looks a lot like the one we ate at Yi-Hou.
RESTAURANT CELESTE IMPERIO at 7a Avenue 9-99, Zona 9, Guatemala City Guatemala, their phone: 2331-0940 is next on our list. Open, here, we try the roast pork and other Cantonese dishes. Their Stuffed Eggplant, loaded with fish, comes swimming in brown sauce. The Special Stewed Duck does not; it is very good. Many other dishes swim, and Amanda Quan tells us that the locals like them that way though she prefers hers dry as we do.
Not only do dishes here swim, but many are over-fried, before or after their first tour in a wok. We note many dishes pictured outside seem to swim, too. Seems the twenty or so Chinese restaurants serve lots of their Chinese chow that way. Ms Quan does tell us that virtually all Chinese restaurants are Cantonese even if they say otherwise, and that most are in business ten or more years. Clearly, they please their customers more than they did this American visitor.
IMPERIO REAL at 7ma, Avenida 8-86, Zona 9, in Guatemala City whose phone is 2360-0934 is the last Chinese restaurant we try in this city. Here some fifteen thousand Chinese people live; and we learn the Chinese make up three percent of the city's population. Here at Imperio, the outside sign also has pictures of foods served within. We order two of them and see little visual resemblance.
Chef-owner Sun Ming Cheng Quan has been here but two years, and his daughter, Teresa Cheng runs the front of the house while he tends his woks. Never did learn who was there before, just that this pair were most welcoming and hospitable. Local folks seem to know that, too. Many young men pour in as we start our meal and disappear into a separate room. We ask where and why? "Karaoke and Chinese food, they like the combo and come once a week" Teresa says in fluent English.
We are ready to order Pato Guisada en Reverero and Carne Asada when Ms Cheng notices we are taking notes. We tell her I am writing what we want to order, but she asks if I am a food reporter from the United States. When I answer in the affirmative, she rushes off to the kitchen to tell her dad, and returns to say he wants to select dishes for us to show off his best. My husband, our driver, and I accept.
The driver seems to know Chinese food, but not how to order nor eat it. Most often, he tells us he orders one dish, sometimes an appetizer with it and speaks of other places he knows. He says he has never been to this Chinese restaurant; and after the meal here says it will be his number one Chinese restaurant from now on. It would be ours, too.
Teresa advises the Carne Asado on our list is her dad's favorite. He sends this Roast Duck to our table, and when it comes it is crisp and can not be beat. While waiting for it, pieces of lightly pickled cucumber, carrot, and white radish are set down for us to nibble on. These pao cai are in a mild acidic marinade and they stimulate our appetites. We polish them off, and do likewise to a yummy thin-sliced cold conch under gai lan that comes next. It is cooked to perfection with a spicy sauce on the side. We all enjoy these as we eat teach the driver to use chopsticks. He masters them immediately and then we watch him wolf down more than his share. Effective teaching does cost!
The duck arrives a beautiful mahogany color, its skin crisp and delicious. It is followed by a Sopa de Pescado con Vegetables loaded with shrimp, fish, conch, crab, surimi, chicken, egg whites, and several white vegetables. All swim with chicken and egg whites in a rich stock. We find it impressive, not a single item overcooked. Earlier, when the rice does arrive, it is in and under a bowl sitting on a large plate. This clever service helps it stay warm until Teresa takes the bowl and whisks it away.
Outstanding is a Chicken Ball Casserole in its thick clear sauce. Following, is a super steamed fish, then a sweet dish to end the meal that is made with banana. It looks like a flattened spring roll and is our only non-pleaser. The banana, mixed with a sweet jelly, is wrapped in dough and sprinkled with sugar. Somewhat greasy to our taste, we think it fried too long. When querying why so much oil, Teresa tells us locals complain if fried foods do not arrive swimming, too.
While we eat, we notice Teresa enjoying a glass of tepid tea, a tea bag label hanging on the rim of her glass. At first we wonder how it stays there, so we inquire. She brings the wrapper for this nylon wonder, then the box. She says she purchased it in Boston at a Costco store. The white paper at the string-end tells us it is a Japanese Eto En tea. When we get home, we use a paper punch and make that clever hanging system for our own tea bags for iced tea.
BELIZE CITY is also in Central America where many restauranteurs tell us "seafood served is caught every morning." Only problem, they add, "no spiny lobsters as they are not in season." A pity, as we had hoped to have them in black bean sauce, the way many Chinese here have told us is best.
Belize has close to half million folk, about five percent Chinese, most of them from Taiwan. There is even a Taiwanese embassy in this City. After agriculture, tourism is the next largest industry, fishing comes after that. Chinese own restaurants here, also hardware stores, and supermarkets. We ask one Chinese chap who did not own a restaurant about living here. He replies, "look at the bars on the windows and doors of Chinese take-outs places, many robberies on account of they do not take credit cards, only cash."
EVERYDAY GOURMET CHINESE RESTAURANT at 5945 Dolphine Drive in Belize City is one such take-out. It has a several-page menu in a loose-leaf binder; actually two of them. The owner tells us they sell lots of fried rice and fried chicken, and many lobster dishes when that crustacean is in season. We order Pork Lo Mein, another popular dish she tells us. It is very good, so is their Chicken Chow Mein. Neither is a relative to any served in the United States, both are much, much better. Even tea here is good; it comes in a glass teapot, tea leaves suspended in a basket. We appreciate it. After we order, we get chopsticks and knife and fork rolled together in a napkin. Habenero and soy sauce grace every table. It is lunch time, only two tables are occupied, yet the restaurant is busy. Many folk call ahead, pop in for their take-out, then jump back in their cars with their food.
Ta Guan Chen and his wife Mae Zhu run this place alone week-days. Week-ends and nights they need and have others helping them. Near a supermarket and in walking distance from out hotel, they advise that almost one hundred Chinese restaurants are in Belize, and most are take-out, as they describe theirs. They also tell us most make money on fried chicken, fried rice, and other fried foods made Chinese-style. They do, too.
FRIENDSHIP CHINESE RESTAURANT on Dolphine drive in Belize City has no phone. They are closer to the supermarket and the hotel but does not serve from three in the afternoon until six in the evening. We see their Buddhist altar but none of their food. They refuse to serve us at exactly 3:00 pm. One local lady at our hotel tells us they and many other Chinese restaurants serve very salty food fried for too long, that is otherwise tasty. We can not corroborate this as we do not get a chance to order anything. The owner will not serve us, his delivery begins two hours later, and we need to board a van to the airport then. Like most other Chinese restaurants here, he takes no credit cards and no checks, only cash. He proudly advises he is more popular than the place down the block. We cannot concur, but do note there is no one there when he is closing and refuses to serve us.
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