Peeking in the strip mall storefront window at El Chapin, you see bottles of red and green hot sauce on tables covered with plasticized fabrics with cheery folk art patterns. On the left wall, just visible behind a small jungle of potted tropical plants, is a well-stocked salsa bar. On the right, a mini-tienda on pegboard shelves: dried beans, canned goods, packages of corn husks for making tamales, snacks with “Fuego” on the label. At the back of the room, a soccer match plays on a small TV suspended above a cabinet laden with pastries and a neat row of sodas in every hue of the rainbow. You congratulate yourself on discovering another authentic Mexican restaurant.
Then you step inside, and you realize that your culinary sleuthing was a little off base. One of those tablecloth patterns is a faux needlepoint design with the word GUATEMALA every few inches. The hot sauces turn out to be a brand you’ve never seen before: Picamás, which you Google on your phone and – yup, it’s from Guatemala.
You have in fact stumbled across the Triangle’s first Guatemalan restaurant.
Of course, if you’d taken Spanish in high school like you should have (instead of French, just because that cute girl next to you in homeroom said she was taking French), you wouldn’t have made the mistake in the first place. You’d have known that Chapin is Guatemalans’ nickname for, well, Guatemalan. So El Chapin is “the guy from Guatemala.”
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In this case, the guy would be Rony Ordoñez, who opened El Chapin last year with his family. And by family, I mean three generations, working together to put a taste of Guatemala on your plate and a smile on your face.
That grill-charred, sweetly succulent carne adobada you ordered starts when Ordoñez’s father (“he’s the meat department”) selects and cuts thin slices of pork loin. His mother then marinates the meat for two to three days in her special spice blend. Rony Ordoñez grills the meat to order, and it’s served by one of his children – who happen to be some of the nicest, most helpful teenagers you’ll come across.
Ordoñez’s mother, sister and wife turn out more variations on the tamale theme than you knew existed. Tamalitos de chipilin, for one – mini tamales laced with a the subtly tangy leaves of a plant commonly used in Central American cooking. And chuchitos, stubby cylinders of masa dough molded around chunks of beef or chicken, steamed in corn husks. To serve, the husks are opened and the chuchitos topped with a mild red sauce and a slaw reminiscent of the curtido of Guatemala’s neighbors in Honduras and El Salvador. And, taking the tamale into territory you’ve likely never explored before, paches Guatemaltecos are made with mashed potatoes instead of corn masa.
Boquitas Chapinas is a carnivore’s delight of a starter sampler: grilled chorizo, chicharron (similar to Mexican pork carnitas, authentically cooked to a crusty turn in their own fat), salchicha (bite size bits of deep-fried hot dog) and slabs of queso fresco on a platter garnished with guacamole, lime wedges and homemade tortilla chips. Depending on how many tamales you’ve ordered, the platter is ample for two to four to share.
But you might not be willing to share the Plato Tipico Chapin, an entree sampler that serves up two garnachas (Guatemala’s answer to tostadas featuring ground sirloin on El Chapin’s small, rustically thick homemade corn tortillas), a couple of pastelitos de papa (fried potato cakes), and a poblano pepper stuffed with more of that savory ground beef.
The menu bills pollo en pepián as “the traditional Guatemalan dish,” and El Chapin’s rendition makes it easy to understand why. Hefty chunks of chicken (you may encounter a bone or two) are joined by a cornucopia of fresh vegetables (including pale green, buttery-fleshed chayote) in a cilantro-spangled, grease-slicked broth so tasty that – filling as it is – you won’t stop until you see the bottom of the bowl.
Caldo de res is another worthy meal in a bowl – and a colorful one, too, with chunks of carrot, corn on the cob, cabbage, tomato, potato, onion and chayote joining chunks of lean beef that have been simmered into supple submission in a chile-reddened broth.
It’s hard to imagine leaving El Chapin without having to loosen your belt a notch, but if the tamarind agua fresca or fresh pineapple shake (aka licuado) you ordered as your beverage didn’t satisfy your sweet tooth, you might want to waddle to the back of the room and check out the dessert options in the display case. Call dibs on ayote con dulce: butternut squash cooked with panela until it absorbs all that brown sugar goodness and is transformed into a rich, dark, seed-studded pudding.
“It’s all the same food we cook and eat at home,” Rony Ordoñez says, and indeed the whole experience at El Chapin – welcoming and relaxed, right down to fetching your own utensils and napkins from a station next to the salsa bar – feels like you’re part of the family. When you’re dining with El Chapin, you might say, Guatemala is home.
4600-38 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham; 919-908-7975
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: very casual and welcoming
Noise level: moderate
Service: friendly and attentive
Recommended: tamalito de chipilin, chuchito, Plato Tipico Chapin, pollo en pepián, caldo de res, ayote con dulce
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.