Food Finds: Humble Restaurant in Webster Dishes Up Guatemalan Comfort Food
Atitlan Guatemalan Food, located at 939 East NASA Parkway in the Village Real Shopping Center in Webster, is offering a no-frills experience that feels home-cooked in the best way possible. Named after Lake Atitlán in the highlands of southwestern Guatemala, this restaurant lets the food do the talking with flavorful recipes that highlight the cuisine and culture of Central America.
This family-run hole-in-the-wall is sparsely decorated. Fixtures are worse for wear, and the service is not going to win any awards, but the comida Guatemalteco is more than enough to merit repeat visits. As soon as I sat down, heard the telenovelas playing at full volume and saw the agua fresca dispensers flowing I knew I was in for a treat.
The first half of the menu includes antojitos, known as “little cravings”, and includes street foods and appetizers such as tacos, flautas, gorditas and tortas, as well as more traditional Guatemalan offerings like garnachas, chuchitos and tamalitos de chipilín. Garnachas, popular all over Mexico and Central America, are palm-sized, fried masa cakes topped with beans, ground beef, cheese, curtido — a lightly fermented cabbage relish, or shredded cabbage and chilies. An order of six will set you back a mere $7.50. The chuchitos and tamalitos are a must, each are essentially tiny tamales filled with pork or chicken and topped with a piquant achiote sauce called recado rojo. The tamalitos also have chipilín leaves folded in the dough. (Chipilín leaves are from plants native to Mexico, Central America and Guatemala.)
The second half of the menu can be tricky to navigate. While it’s mostly in English, the names of dishes have been very loosely translated. It was helpful for me to search on Google for dishes or ingredients I was unfamiliar with by adding “Guatemalan” followed by the item description in order to get a better idea of what to expect. For example, Guatemalan pulled beef in tomato sauce was revealed as a dish called hilachas. You can also order by number or by pointing at one of the low-resolution photos. Recurring ingredients include chilies, black beans and maize — all staples of the Mayan diet that still appear ubiquitously in modern cuisines, including Spanish and Caribbean. The majority of the entrées are at or below $11 and consist of proteins simmered in stews thickened with purées of vegetables, chilies and nuts or seeds.
Pictured above is the national dish of Guatemala, pepián de pollo, which is aptly listed as “pumpkin seed chile sauce” on the menu. Pepián is a hearty, curry-like stew that tastes similar to butter chicken — though it’s commonly made with beef as well — and comes loaded with potatoes and other root vegetables. It’s served with seasoned rice and freshly-made corn tortillas. The slow-cooked chicken fell right off the bone and transported me to my abuelita’s kitchen in Quito, Ecuador where we shared many similar meals. It’s a nourishing comfort food fit for a king.
With the exploding number of homogeneous high rises with high end Dallas restaurant imports sprawling across the Greater Houston Area, it comes as a relief to still find independent, family-run restaurants like this one where the culinarily adventurous can try something new and exciting, be transported to another country through a meal or have their own familiar Anton Ego moment.
Atitlan Guatemalan Food is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Mario-Sebastian Berry is a wine and spirits vendor who has been in the hospitality industry since 2002. Currently, he represents Blanco, Texas-based Andalusia Whiskey Co. and multiple wine labels. Somehow, he also finds time to be Houston Food Finder’s associate editor and social media manager.