Photo by Matt OttoAsk to dine in at Tikal Tienda in Santa Ana, and the matronly Mayan owner shepherds you past shelves of Guatemalan produce toward a claustrophobic back room. Your supper experience will take place in this tiny grocery's storage space, so say holato some of your companions—two plastic-chair towers stacked about shoulder height, an imposing oven, unopened boxes of canned goods bound for the shelves. A Tikal employee occasionally enters to grab something from the freezer or to turn up the boom box blasting gentle marimba rhythms. Workers pay no attention to you after you receive your meal; you're now as conspicuous as a can of tomatoes.
Tikal Tienda has functioned as the county's only Guatemalan market for years but only recently moved to the current Main Street storefront, abandoning its former 17th Street space for these larger, but still-comfy environs a couple of months ago. As in the previous location, Tikal functions primarily as a bodega, providing an affordable courier service along with fruit juices, preserved vegetables and even Guatemalan toiletries. Many customers lingered over the Guatemalan chow mein. A small bakery produces large loaves and smaller pastries such as a delightful almond-flour empanada, tinted orange and oozing vanilla-custard, deserving of more than its 75-cent price tag.
It's easy to lose yourself among these culinary knickknacks and never notice Tikal's storage room-cum-dining hall. But pick up a stapled menu from the counter and stroll on back. All the mainstays of the Guatemalan diet are available—pork, chicken or chipilín (mint) tamales wrapped in banana leaves, the equivalent of corn Jell-O; chile rellenos stuffed with carrots, onions, potatoes, and ground beef; enchiladas that are perhaps topped with too many hard-boiled eggs for their own good. Tikal truly excels in the soup business, though. Foremost among the broths is hilacha, a brick-red boiling stew sharp with tomato, the shredded beef strands and about three different squashes bobbing in slow circles. Just as memorable is pepian, a sort of chicken-pepper soup with some toasted squash thrown in—it's hard to avoid squash at any Guatemalan eatery.
Tikal also brews one of the strangest drinks I've sipped, a goo called atol blanco. Served in a small bowl, atol blanco is black bean broth, whitened, diced with onions and garlic, and powdered with enough salt to scare a slug. You're supposed to chug it while it's scalding, scooping up any stray legumes that don't immediately slip down your throat. Atol blanco is definitely an acquired taste—you'll tolerate its pungent wallop after about 15 tries—but it hits every nutritional note, and that means you don't have to consume anything else again; and you won't want to, once you indubitably fall in love with it.
Tikal Tienda y Restaurante, 1111 S. Main St., Santa Ana. (714) 973-8547.