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Guatemalan Flavor Comes to Eureka

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Do not underestimate the humble chuchito, a modest fist of masa wrapped in corn husk, its name meaning "little dog." According to Astrid Calderón, owner of the newly opened GuateMayan Yum Yum (534 Fifth St., Eureka), "Chuchito and atole should hold you over until lunch." Served with a coral red tomato sauce and queso fresco, hers are dense and stuffed with shredded chicken ($3.50), more than hearty with a cup of warm, sweet, silky atole made with milk and either oatmeal, corn or rice ($3.50).

This is Calderón's first restaurant, though she's worked in the business before and comes from a long line of cooks. "My family has always made food and I learned almost everything I know from my grandmother," she says, recalling how her grandmother used to sell food at the county fairs. "She's still cooking in Guatemala." After immigrating to Oregon from Guatemala at 16, Calderón explains she left high school early to work and help support her mother and brother, and send money back to Guatemala. And after some time in the construction business with her father, she came back to cooking, first in Fortuna before finding the space in Eureka.

The traditional cuisine Calderón grew up eating is based heavily in Mayan food culture, Spanish colonial influence and Central American neighbors like El Salvador. The staff at GuateMayan is mostly of Mexican heritage, she says, and learning to prepare Guatemalan dishes. "Guatemalan [pupusas] are bigger, thicker," she says, and her masa is seasoned to her taste. "I like a little bit of flavor." The pupusas are soft and here and there the filling makes a break for it, forming crisp spots on the surface where the cheese, finely ground pork or savory chicken hits the grill. The shredded cabbage curtido is simpler with less brine than its Salvadoran counterpart, and everything agrees with the Hulk-green Picamás jalapeño sauce bottle on the table. 

"That's our Valentina sauce," says Calderón, comparing Picamás Salsa Brava to the ubiquitous Mexican staple. "All Guatemalan families need to have one bottle of that sauce, she adds. "We used to buy three of them every week." But if you want something hotter, she makes her own jalapeño and green onion sauce with more heat.

Along with masa tamales, there are rice tamales wrapped in banana leaves that impart an earthy, tea-like flavor ($7). Served in peeled back foil, the luxury of nearly custardy rice with mildly spiced recado sauce surprises, as does the tender bone-in chicken thigh with its buttery skin. "If you're gonna eat a tamale, you don't want to have something with no chicken," Calderón says with a chuckle. The tamales de chipilin, however, are meatless and flavored with greens, and there are vegetarian pupusas, empanadas and enchiladas, as well.

Some of the ingredients Calderón needs are tougher to source; for now, that means driving to Los Angeles for Guatemalan plantains and other traditional seasonings. It's what her family has always done, and it's worth it to her to recreate the traditional flavors. "You can't get these things online," she says.

And the effort is appreciated, especially by customers homesick for Guatemalan specialties. "I have met like 11 families," says Calderón, a little surprised. "I didn't realize how many of us there are here."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill and on Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill.

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