Guatemalans get nothing but ridicule in the other, lesser column I write, but in culinary matters, I have nothing but love for my shorter, darker cousins. Their cuisine is delicious—hard to find in Orange County, but a treat worth experiencing. So drive your maw to PANADERÍA LA CHAPINA in Santa Ana, disregard the Mexicans swarming around you, and enter a place the Reconquistahas yet to win.
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Most local Central American restaurants must mitigate their intent of serving expats with the realization that any chance of survival means offering Mexican plates as well—never delicious, but necessary for revenue. Panadería La Chapina, however, has bravely bucked the trend. I remember when this place used to only sell baked goods and tamales: small chuchitos filled with pork and a mild red salsa; chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves; or veggie ones spiked with the aromatic leaves of the Central American legume chipilin. All good, but hardly appealing to Mexis in a city where tamales and pan dulce are as common as potholes. This exclusionary approach surprisingly worked because La Chapina now offers a full Guatemalan menu alongside prepackaged goods for all your chapin cooking needs. Hell, even the mole is from Guatemala.
Despite the bakery’s success, this is still the epitome of a hole-in-the-wall—menu behind the counter or in big pictures outside the restaurant, cutlery and napkins hidden away in drawers. Ask for a soda, and the nice ladies who run the restaurant invite you to step behind the counter and grab one from the freezer. Some of the items available will sound familiar to your Mexican-dominated mind, but don’t get fooled: Guatemalans do it better. The chile rellenos here differ from the cheese-drenched Mexican version by being downright nuanced: an eggy fried skin around a mild chile stuffed with ground beef, veggies and a thin cheese slice. A close cousin is the rellenitos, mashed bananas wrapped with a black-bean paste, the epitome of savory. You know chorizo; say hola to longaniza, a sweeter pork sausage. The tamales remain, and there’s even a version of chow mein—words cannot describe the weirdness, just know it’s bueno.
Whatever dish you order comes with tortillas or a French roll. Stick with the bread—this is a bakery, after all—and enjoy its slightly tough crust and soft center. Take a dozen to go, and peek into the dessert case, where you’ll get more confused. Champurrado in Mexico is a sweet drink; here, it’s a crunchy cookie. We all know what a quesadilla is . . . until you see a marker for quesadillas here on a tray filled with what looks like pound cake, but is actually a culinary perpetual-motion machine: the more you chew, the tastier it gets. The only shout-outs to Mexicans? A tray of Mexican pan dulce and Jarritos sodas. Take that, Nativo Lopez!
Panadería La Chapina, 2230 W. Edinger Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 437-9492.