>> Tierras Centro Americanas | Eat the World NYC

13 September 2018

Tierras Centro Americanas

Central American Independence. Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

This article originally appeared in the 13 September 2018 issue of The Queens Tribune.

When I first sampled the thick stews of Guatemala at this location almost 15 years ago, I could never have known how finding them in restaurants could be so elusive. So rare in fact that later that year on a trip through Central America, I found myself constantly hearing “Ese es un plato que solo comemos en casa” in restaurants throughout Guatemala.

“We only eat those foods at home.”

The wildly enjoyable joc贸n and hilachas at what then was called “La Xelaj煤” are almost unheard of in restaurants in the New York City area. Only one other time had I found a rendition of hilachas across the Hudson River, but this only made the yearning more fierce as it seemed no love had been put into the plate at that restaurant.

Thankfully for over 20 years the specials here at what is now Tierras Centro Americanas have stayed wonderfully steady despite one change of hands. Current owner and chef Maria Escobar took over in 2006 and employed its former chef for two years to pass down the Guatemalan recipes she was less familiar with. Hailing from El Salvador but living in New York City since the early 1980’s, Ms. Escobar decided the menu should keep its focus on an integrated cuisine that represented both countries and also catered to Hondurans in the area. This recipe for success and a commitment to quality have led to a consistency that is quite rare in restaurants. In over two dozen visits I do not remember an off day from this kitchen.

Joc贸n. Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

Around the corner from Hillside Avenue and hidden from the busy thoroughfare, this Jamaica mainstay is very much unhidden to its Central American regulars. Not much else has changed since those first visits besides fresh coats of white and light blue paint to represent the many flags of Central America and probably some new handicrafts for the walls. Over time what was originally $10 on the menu may have been crossed out and have $11 hand-written instead.

Primarily used for the storage of menus and drinks, the room you enter from 168th Street also has a couple chairs for waiting takeout customers and you can peek into the small kitchen and catch glimpses of the chef in action. As you take your seat in the dining room, the only access to the kitchen is audible, where during slower mid-afternoon times you can almost hear every rattle and clink of your meal being prepared.

Big hearty plates are served to couples, solo diners looking weary after long days of work, and groups of men who come in and enjoy a table full of Coronas or Cerveza Gallo, Guatemala’s biggest beer which goes by the name “Famosa” in the states. The joc贸n (above) comes in a large bowl accompanied like most Guatemalan dishes with thick homemade corn tortillas. The dish has its roots in Mayan culture and cuisine, still very prevalent in Guatemala more than any other place. Tomatillos have been discovered to be a very important ingredient of this ancient civilization and they have a heavy influence in the stew. In addition the wonderful green is created by adding cilantro, green peppers, and jalape帽os. Toasted pumpkin seeds called pepitos, garlic, and onions provide the rest of the palate.

Salpic贸n. Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

Take caution with the tortillas which are not only piping hot but have a quick way of filling the belly. Put them close to your nose and enjoy the wonderful smell once they cool down, but save room for hilachas, a shredded beef stew made with a base of ripe tomatoes, and salpic贸n (above), a pan-Central American beef salad served cold with chopped onions, cilantro, tomatoes, and non-spicy peppers. Another typically Guatemalan dish is revolcado, which can be prepared in many ways but always involves the interior parts of the animal involved in its preparation. Here the brief English menu description is “chopped cow heart and pork in homemade brown sauce,” but without knowing the cuts could be mistaken for tender beef. In addition to these more intricate dishes, the workaday meals found on Guatemalan lunch menus daily like pepi谩n, another meat stew with Mayan heritage, and garnachas, an appetizer similar to Mexican tostadas consisting of a fried tortilla topped with meat, onions, and tomato sauce.

Pupusas revueltas. Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

Many of the other tables you see will be Salvadoran people ordering stacks of Ms. Escobar’s excellent pupusas (above), perhaps the most recognizable symbol of that country’s cuisine but eaten by more than just Guanacos. Groups of men devouring them might ask for the lone TV to be switched over to La Liga matches, but usually a talk show or drama will be on in competition with the jukebox if someone puts on a song. At the back with the jukebox is the most prominent work in the restaurant, a handmade mural celebrating September 15th, 1821, the day El Salvador and Guatemala, along with Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica all became independent from Spain. For hundreds of years the histories and cuisines of these nations have been tied together, and often this translates in New York City into restaurants like this that can satisfy the cravings of each of these peoples.

You will still find the name “Xelaj煤” on the menu, an ode to the roots of the restaurant and its food. This Mayan word derived from the phrase “under ten mountains” and used to be the name of what now goes by Quetzaltenango in the highlands of Guatemala. In New York City, Tierras Centro Americanas is the fastest way to get to “Xela,” the nickname residents still use for their city.

The previous Eat the World NYC article from 14 August 2009 can be found here:

Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.


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