119 South Main Street
Antigua Guatemala is named after the picturesque city located in the country’s central highlands. Antigua was founded in the 16th century and is famous for its Spanish-influenced Baroque architecture and spectacular ruins.
Politically and culinarily, Guatemala is made up of 22 divisions or departments (and subdivided into approximately 332 municipalities), each of which offers a plethora of different dishes. Specifically then, the ingredients used in various recipes are somewhat dependent upon the region in which you happen to be hanging your hat at the moment. More generally, though, the three major cultural influences on Guatemalan gastronomy are Mayan, Spanish, and those of the modern republic; and staples such as corn, chilies, and beans continue to predominate. Interestingly enough, however, while certain menu items – enchiladas and quesadillas, for instance – may sound familiar, they are nothing like their Mexican counterparts.
Phoenixville’s Antigua Guatemala, which made its debut on June 26, 2010, is presided over by chef/proprietor Angel Salguero and his extended family and is situated directly across the street from Phoenixville Federal Bank and Trust in the building that was once home to the Destiny Brewing Company. The restaurant’s interior is decked out in various shades of green. There is a small section of booths to your left as you traverse a hallway, and a larger dining area (which is to be preferred) at the rear.
… And when it comes time to plop down with menu in hand, you need not worry about butting your head up against a possible language barrier, as all items, though listed in Spanish, also have clear and precise English translations.
Our waitress’s obvious adherence to the “You Guys” methodology of the illustrious food service industry should give you some clue as to this establishment’s extremely casual nature, where white paper napkins and colorful plastic covered tablecloths prevail… On the other hand, the restaurant is squeaky clean, the portion sizes prodigious, and the prices ridiculously low.
You begin with a complimentary offering of crispy, pristinely fresh tortilla chips slathered with an addictively flavorful black bean purée and sprinkling of feta (!) cheese… which is about as Guatemalan as dim sum. So obviously there’s a bit of culinary cross-cultural exchange taking place here… a circumstance not at all unusual in restaurants that serve up cuisine that may be slightly unfamiliar (and, perhaps, slightly intimidating) to the American palate.
In other words, if you’re not a particularly adventurous eater, and are not quite sure you want to go native, you should find a sufficient number of mitigating menu alternatives to keep you happy. To start things off, for example, there’s always the ubiquitous Caesar salad; not terribly exciting but totally unthreatening. Even the “Antiguan” salad rounds up all the usually suspects and offers an all-too-familiar catalog of generic dressings. To spruce things up, steak, chicken, or shrimp may be added to either.
Entrée-wise, you can always default to the filet mignon served au jus and companioned by such straightforwardly stalwart items as grilled vegetables and roasted red potatoes. And there’s even a burger. The representative proffered here is adorned with mozzarella cheese, slices of avocado, and French fries; the closest you get to anything approximating an indigenous accompaniment is a nod from pico de gallo, a Spanish relish.
On the other hand, if your plan is simply to chow down a filet or burger & fries, why go to an ethnic eatery in the first place? Why not stick to a steakhouse or one of those grab ‘n’ growl joints and save yourself (and your dining companions) a ton of aggravation?
Antigua Guatemala is certain to provide you with an enjoyable – though slightly innocuous – introduction to Guatemalan cuisine… So if you’re entertaining any doubts because this country’s comestibles happen to “play footsie” with Mexican vittles, allow me to set your fears to rest. In contrast to Mexican food, which can be rather spicy, and has been known to incinerate the uninitiated palate and/or set off paroxysms of peristaltic indisposition, Guatemalan food is really rather bland. At times, entirely TOO bland.
If you want to get off on the right foot, I’d suggest the pupusas, three thick, handmade corn tortillas stuffed with cheese and cooked pork meat that has been ground to a paste consistency. These are then topped with what is euphemistically referred to as “Latin sauerkraut” or curtido, a lightly fermented cabbage slaw spruced up with oregano, onions, carrots, and pineapple vinegar. This may sound rather odd, but the curtido adds just the right amount of zip to a dish that, if served solo, would undoubtedly suffer from a terminal case of the blahs.
Tacos and quesadillas are also available… However, for something a bit different, a variation on the quesadilla theme, you might consider the veggidilla (or veggi-dilla). Here you have a white flour tortilla filled not only with melted cheese but also with an assortment of seasonal – and perfectly seasoned – grilled vegetables. Served up with sour cream and pico de gallo this prelude was a palpable hit.
When it comes to your main course, should you be incurably carnivorous – and also anxious to indulge in an authentic representative of Guatemalan cuisine – the churrasco, Guatemalan-style steak should clearly be numero uno. The USDA “Choice” filet is hand rubbed with a combo of Central American seasonings (exhibiting just enough kick to ingratiate rather than incinerate your delicate taste buds); it is then char grilled, drizzled with salsa, and finished with an embellishment of scallions and a touch of guacamole. Although it is the least expensive steak on the menu, it is tender, succulent, and alive with flavor.
The boneless breast of moist fire-grilled chicken marinated in Antiguan spices is also a good bet… ditto the fajita, whether companioned by perfectly prepared strips of steak or chicken or pristinely crunchy shrimp. All the vegetables had obviously been freshly cut and the dish was impeccably seasoned.
The only presentation that didn’t really set off any bells or whistles was the tilapia. This particular species is the most popular farmed fish in the United States, undoubtedly because it is quite inexpensive and tastes bland. In point of fact, in the parlance of the food industry it is known as “aquatic chicken.” And that’s part of the problem with tilapia (among others)… lacking any significant flavor of its own, it needs accoutrements that will supply sufficient gustatory gusto…
So you’d think that Antigua Guatemala’s method of dipping it in their “savory batter” and pan frying it to “crispy golden perfection” would do the trick. Not so. For starters, during its stint in the sauté pan, the fish may very well have been “crispy”; after a slathering of salsa, however, by the time the entrée reached the table, matters had turned decidedly soggy.
As noted above, tilapia is a fish that is in desperate need of a healthy dose of seasoning… But the herbs & spices that adorned this particular representative had about as much pizzazz as a wilted head of iceberg lettuce. Unfortunately, this was definitely a case of the bland leading the bland.
Then there was the question of appearance… To paraphrase that oft-quoted maxim: “The gullet can only absorb what the eye can endure.” So called south-of-the-border cuisine has never been known for its artistic plating, but the tilapia presentation – two huge filets, piled one upon the other, buttressed by mountains of utterly boring Spanish rice & salad – was hardly what I would call appetizing. I don’t believe that every entrée should be a work of art… but a given presentation’s pleasant appearance cannot help but increase its desirability, as well as the diner’s desire to pay return calls to a particular eatery.
Finally, to ultimately decide whether one will or will not visit Antigua Guatemala, the restaurant’s pros and cons must be carefully measured. So, here we go…
Pros: spotlessly clean; prodigious portions (particularly recommended items include the veggidilla, Guatemalan-style steak, fire-grilled chicken, fajitas, black beans); the price is right; you may BYOB.
Cons: several presentations are famine for the eye; service is amateur night; the kitchen moves at the speed of light (although we waited until we were served appetizers before ordering entrées, the main courses appeared at table well before we had finished our starters); many items (including several side dishes) are woefully UNDER-seasoned.
The Bottom Line: Is Antigua Guatemala worth a visit…? If you choose wisely, yes, in my opinion. But, once again, it’s your call.
The Artful Diner
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
Want to receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted? E-mail Artful Diner!