Saturday, April 26, 2008

Street Food

Quetzeltenango, like many Latin American cities, has at its heart a large park, in this case, the Parque Centroamérica, around which cars whip by with little thought for pedestrians trying to cross the street to enjoy the park's gardens, fountains, and shade-filled plaza. Surrounding the park are massive stone buildings housing banks, restaurants, and bars, and to the south is a small market where one can purchase foodstuffs, hardware, and cleaning supplies. It's the smaller sibling to the city's sprawling main market, which is about two kilometers to the northwest, near the bus terminal (which is essentially a parking lot with people milling around, drivers shouting out destinations, and disoriented gringos looking quizzically around, panic-stricken in the chaotic gyre of exhaust, pressing flesh, and thundering buses).

But back to the small market, at the entrance to which is a courtyard that teams with food vendors at night, selling a diverse selection of greasy food for locals and tourists alike who are out for the night and need a little padding in their stomachs before imbibing at the many local bars. Here one can find the Guatemalan version of the famous Mexican antojito ("little whim"), the taco. Unlike the Mexican version, which comes with beef, chicken, or sausage, the Guatemalan taco seems to be exclusively made of pork. As the picture to the right shows, a big pork leg simmers on the side of the taco stove (shaped like those in Mexico), with onions to the left and a large slick of pork grease in the front. The taco vendor soaks the tortillas in pork fat and then fries them in the upraised center of the stove while shredding the pork to order. After the tortillas are nearly rigid from the frying, he scoops up the shredded pork, adds some onions, and forms a sandwich-shaped meal between the tortillas. These tacos are much larger than Mexican tacos. One or two and you are well prepared to continue drinking throughout the night. Corn plus pork plus grease equals a great stomach lining onto which one can add much alcohol, be it tequila or a bitter but cheap local beer called Gallo (I like to call it Cock). (In Mexico, the vendors took great pains to not touch the money with the same hand with which they touched the food; here, though, there's no such precaution. So it makes no sense that I haven't been sick since Mexico, unless antibodies are now coursing through my veins at full strength.)

I was a bit underwhelmed at the Guatemalan taco experience—I think the Mexicans have that lil' whim locked up. But I wasn't about to give up yet. Street food is a traveler's prerogative, and I wasn't about to walk away without finding something to impress. Luckily, a few stalls down, a woman was frying up tiny tortillas with a thin topping of ground beef and salsa in a large pan over a coal fire. Unable to resist, I sidled and queried her as to what the little things were. "Garnachos," she replied, and said a plate was only five quetzales (about 75 cents). That was good enough for me, and I order some. Served up with cabbage salad, a carrot wedge, and a pickled jalepeño, garnachos taste and look like a Latin pizza, and with the vegetables you don't have to feel too bad about all the grease and meat. Perfect for a night out, and preferable (in my opinion) to the uninspired tacos.

But the best was waiting for me for last. As I was buying some roasted-in-the-shell peanuts to snack on later that night (and by roasted, I mean blackened over a fire), I looked in the street and saw a couple of indigenous women crouching in front of a coal fire on which sat a large pan full of hot oil. They were making little balls of dough from water, flour, and other unidentified ingredients, and deep-frying them in the oil. It smelled delicious, so I walked over and demanded to know what they were making. They were vinuelos buñuelos (thanks, Richard), and for about 40 cents I got five of them in a plastic bag coated with an intensely sweet honey-flavored syrup. They reminded me of abelskievers, a Scandinavian-type round breakfast pancake, but these were a dessert/late-night snack. Absolutely delicious! You just let them soak in the plastic bag to soak up the syrup, them pop them out of the bag one by one into your mouth. Yum.

Stomach bursting, I opted to head home. There was no way I could eat or drink anymore, and the night was perfect after gorging myself on the best food one can find when traveling: street food!

1 comment:

They say it's a cold world said...

I'm thinking "buñuelos," dude. Bring some home to Red Hook with you...