It's not about coffee at Café Antigua | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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It's not about coffee at Café Antigua

A snug snack shop across from the Guatemalan consulate offers a taste of Central America in Jefferson Park.

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Coffee is one of the reasons that more Guatemalans are caught trying to get into the United States than migrants from any other country. According to the Washington Post , the falling price of coffee has made it so difficult to eke out a living growing beans in Guatemala that even premium fair-trade prices paid by large buyers like Starbucks can't stop workers from throwing up their hands and risking everything for better lives in the U.S.

Douglas Cano sells Guatemalan coffee at Café Antigua, the tiny snack shop he operates with his wife, Karina, across the street and around the corner from the Consulate General of Guatemala in Jefferson Park. It's not the $4.95 grande Iced Caramel Cloud Macchiato sold at Starbucks, but rather a $1.99 cup of La Jarrillita instant coffee.

Still, most of Cano's customers prefer to pay a dollar more for steaming mugs of atol de elote or atol de platano (sweetened drinks of corn or plantain) to go with their tamales, chiles rellenos, and pacayas envueltas. In the 16 months that he and Karina have been open, he says, most of the people that stop in before or after their business at the consulate have come to the midwest to escape gang violence in their home country rather than the vagaries of the volatile international coffee economy.

The Chicago consulate provides a range of services for Guatemalan immigrants who have landed all over flyover country—Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Dakota. Most of these places don't have groceries or restaurants that sell dishes or even staples from back home, so the Canos targeted an ideal spot to sell nearly two dozen Guatemalan antojitos (snacks) and drinks.

And for now, it is mostly Guatemalans coming through, happy to find a taste of home. "There is a lady that comes once a month from Rockford," says Douglas. "And she always takes, like, 20 chiles rellenos, 18 pacayas, and ten chuchitos. She wants to take everything. She's like, 'I got a big family. I got a lot of mouths to feed.'"

The rellenos and pacayas are among the Canos' best sellers. The former, unlike the familiar Mexican-style cheese-stuffed poblanos, are bell peppers packed with a fine mince of green beans, carrots, and pork or chicken. They're battered with egg-white batter and deep-fried, then served with tomato salsa and a shower of snowy cotija cheese on a house-made white corn tortilla. Pacayas are the unopened flowers of the pacaya palm, a bud that resembles a bundle of long, thin ears of corn. Crunchy and pleasantly bitter, they get the same treatment as the rellenos, as do a number of other snacks—notably pigs' feet, pressure-cooked before going in the fryer so they're unctuous and chewy, and sections of lengua as beefy and tender as a good steak.

Café Antigua is a cozy space. There's not enough room for a fryer, so Karina preps and cooks these items at the Canos' new brick-and-mortar restaurant in Belmont Cragin, Antojitos Guatemaltecos, then reheats them to order at the cafe. They hold up pretty well, as evidenced by the numbers of them that go on long road trips out of state.

Karina also stuffs and steams a family of Guatemalan tamales. There's the traditional tamal colorado, soft, silky masa enshrouding a whole piece of pork or chicken, snugly swaddled in banana leaf. Paches are similar, but formed from potato dough. Chuchitos are mini tamales wrapped in corn husk, tamalitos little tamales mixed with the earthy, somewhat sour leafy greens of a legume called chipilin, native to Mexico and Central America. On the sweeter side, rellenitos de platano are ripe plantains stuffed with sweet black beans, deep-fried, and powdered with confectioners' sugar.

The word shuco is a slang term for "dirty" when referring to a person, but it's also the name of the Guatemalan hot dog, which is likely to give partisans of the Chicago dog the vapors, as it's a wiener (or longaniza sausage) blanketed with cabbage, mayo, mustard, and ketchup and cradled on a bun smeared with guacamole.

It's one of the more conspicuous snacks at Café Antigua, perhaps outdone only by what I consider a great achievement in cross-cultural culinary pollination: the tostada de chao mein. Supposedly the product of decades of Chinese migration to Guatemala, it's a pile of stir-fried noodles, peppers, and cabbage showered with cilantro and cotija, needing nothing more than a dash of Ina brand soy sauce.

The Canos also sell phone cards, photocopies, faxes, money transfers and groceries and crafts from back home. But the main draw is Karina's food, which possesses the universally appreciated quality of deliciousness that everyone should be aware of, business at the consulate or not. v

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