Food is a doorway to culture. A country’s regional dishes reflect its climate, cooking methods, and influences from its native populations and outside forces. As Latinx Heritage Month approaches, Long Beach residents can rejoice in the myriad options the City has to try foods from different Central and South American countries. Get hungry and get ready to learn!
El Salvador: La Santaneca (2461 Atlantic Ave.)
Hold a pupusa and you hold El Salvador’s history. El Salvador’s indigenous Pipil tribe is credited with creating the pupusa about 2000 years ago. Pupusas are the national dish of El Salvador. The thick corn tortillas may be stuffed with cheese, meat, veggies or other savory fillings, then are fried and enjoyed with curtido, a pickled slaw of cabbage, onion and vinegar. A variety of pupusas and other Salvadoran cuisine can be found at La Santaneca. The menu is a series of photos, which is helpful if you’re not familiar with the cuisine. In addition to pupusas, La Santaneca has pastelitos (savory fried empanadas), tamales, soups, and plates with fish, chicken and beef, which may be accompanied by beans, sliced fresh veggies, or the aforementioned curtido. They also make a sauce with tomatoes and lemon juice that you’ll get with the pastelitos. La Santaneca is also a panaderia, so those craving dessert may want to grab a freshly-baked pan dulce, too. They have a small section of foods to take home, like Salvadoran sour crema, and Cuzcatlan “kolashampan”, if you’d like to enjoy your food there or at home with with El Salvador’s national soda.
Honduras: Honduras Kitchen (1909 E 4th St.)
The flavors of Honduras carry influences from Caribbean, African, and Spanish inhabitants, as well as its indigenous cultures like the Maya and the Lenca peoples. These influences have led to rich dishes that may incorporate spices, heat, and sometimes a tropical sweetness. Having both a Pacific and a Caribbean coast, seafood dishes are national specialties. Plantains, stews, beans, and tamales can all be considered staples of a Honduran diet. The cuisine is known to be hearty and satisfying. Honduras Kitchen has a solid reputation for traditional Honduran comfort food. Baleadas are a peak example: red refried beans, pickled onions, cheese, and Honduran crema inside a folded handmade wheat tortilla. These are popular for breakfast in Honduras and often have additional fillings such as eggs, beef/steak, chicken, or pork, which can all be found on HK’s menu. Other offerings include sopa de caracol, a seafood soup made by simmering conch snails, green banana, ripe plantains, cassava, and carrots in a rich coconut milk broth base, and arroz con pollo, a brightly seasoned and colored rice, chicken and vegetables dish. Other dishes like beef and chicken stews, pork chops, and sula—a split ripe plantain stuffed with beef, cheese, and Honduran crema—will no doubt fill you up, and also make you hungry to return to HK.
Peru: Aji Peruvian Cuisine (2308 E 4th St.)
Peruvian cuisine is known as some of the world’s most diverse, an ultimate culinary fusion. To begin with, the country has a gentle climate and unique soil, which allowed the Incan indigenous people to grow a variety of foods from grains to legumes to fruits and vegetables. Additionally, the geography and climate supported a variety of animals. Later, outside influences and ingredients came from Spain, African countries, China, and Japan. The hard truth is, that besides the Spanish, the people from other countries arrived as slaves and servants. Eventually, as all of the people of Peru became recognized as free people, their different ingredients and techniques fused and created the cuisine now recognized globally for its uniqueness and vibrancy. In this vein, Aji Peruvian Cuisine offers traditional Peruvian dishes, and some with their own modern spin. Ceviche, lomo saltado, and anticuchos are often cited as “typical” Peruvian dishes. Ceviche, raw fish marinated in citrus, is Peru’s national dish, and Aji offers 3 varieties, including Nikkei (Peruvian-Japanese) style. Lomo saltado, beef stir-fried in soy sauce with chili, onions, and tomatoes, highlights the Peruvian-Chinese culinary connection. Anticuchos are popular street food, traditionally a marinated beef heart marinated in spices and served with a cream sauce, reflecting the African peoples’ influence. Aji offers anticuchos with corazon (beef heart), carne (hanger steak) and pulpo (octopus) preparations.
Guatemala: La Esperanza (1626 Orange Ave.)
Generally speaking, it is not easy to find Guatemala’s traditional dishes outside of Guatemala. The country has its own versions of well-known items such as tamales, empanadas, and enchiladas, distinguished as Guatemalan both by ingredients and presentation. Additionally, there are dishes very specific to Guatemala, such as chicken pepian, with a history rooted in the Mayan culture. These foods have not advanced far outside of the country due to geographic restrictions (located in volcanic highlands) and a civil war from 1960-96 which discouraged travel. La Esperanza, then, has to be on the radar for anyone in search of Guatemalan food. They’re one of the only places in Long Beach that are always serving Guatemalan-style tamales. These tamales, or chapines, are softer than the Mexican tamales many are familiar with, the masa (corn) outside almost souffle-like in texture. Inside is recado, tomato-based sauce, with pork or chicken, all wrapped in a banana leaf. La Esperanza also features the hyper-regional chicken pepian, described on their menu as “beef or chicken accompanied with chayote, carrots, potato, and string beans drowned in a pool of our THICK Guatemalan style salsa. Made of pepitas, tomato, and sesame seeds. Served with rice and a chipilín tamale,” chipilín being an essential leafy green incorporated into many of Guatemala’s dishes. La Esperanza offers many savory and sweet dishes and drinks from traditional Guatemalan recipes, a rare chance to explore this cuisine in North America.
Colombia: El Paisa (1640 Orange Ave.)
Colombia’s food is uniquely diverse. It reflects the biodiversity of the country, as well as multiple European, African, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean influences which have blended with the indigenous foods and preparations to evolve into a distinct and very varied cuisine. Common ingredients in many dishes could include anything from corn, potatoes, yuca, legumes, beef, goat, seafoods, tropical fruits, and more. Arepas, the flat, filled corn cakes that originated with Colombia’s indigenous peoples, are a popular snack or side dish and may be savory or sweet. The hearty main dish “bandeja paisa” or “bandeja campesina”, is often credited as Colombia’s national dish and originated with the farmers of the Quindio region to fuel them for a day’s work. The platter is stacked with proteins from several meats, a fried egg, and beans, as well as rice, fried plantains, and avocado (and maybe an arepa, too!). These dishes and many more can be found at El Paisa, a dedicated Colombian restaurant. Savory smaller bites may be arepas con queso, fried or steamed yuca, patacones (fried green plantains), or papas rellenas (stuffed potatoes). Those looking for something sweeter might choose pandebono (cheese bread), maduros gratinados (fried sweet plantains with cheese and guava), or arepas de choclo. Entrees showcase different cooking techniques and sauces for beef, pork, chicken, and seafood, many accompanied by chicharron or sausage, and rich spiced stews, another hallmark of Colombia’s colorful culinary offerings.
Mexico: Patricia’s Restaurant (3626 Atlantic Ave.)
Mexican food’s popularity in the U.S. has expanded well beyond the beloved taco in recent years, and deservedly so. Mexican cuisine, which combines the indigenous Mayan and Aztec cultures with the influence of the Spanish colonizers, and later influences from African and Asian peoples, traces its origins back to 7000 BC. It is noted as one of the world’s oldest fusion cuisines. Staples of the diet of Mexico’s indigenous people before the Spanish invasion included corn, chilies, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, avocado and herbs. Here is seen evidence of the birth of cooking methods of corn tortillas and tamales, staples of today’s Mexican menus still. Spanish soldiers brought items like rice, beef, pork, chicken, garlic, and onions, which would lead to the creation of dishes like chile rellenos and accompaniments like guacamole. The menu at Patricia’s Restaurant spans a huge selection of Mexican food, from breakfast to dinner and everything in between. Breakfast burritos, chilaquiles and tortas are solid starters, as well as lighter fare like ensalada de nopales, a salad with bits of tender, flavorful cactus. Seafood selections may be served fresh in cocteles or on a tostada, stewed for a flavorful caldo de camaron, or presented as a whole fish prepared to your liking (mojarra al gusto). And, of course, there’s rich thick housemade mole, which incorporates ground nuts, spices, chili, and chocolate and many other ingredients for a truly unique and complex spicy-slightly-sweet layered flavor experience. Mole poblano is the national dish of Mexico, an iconic example of the various influences that birthed this fusion cuisine. Variations of the sauce may swap the chocolate out to create mole verde, amarillo, rojo, and many more. Patricia’s offers the traditional dark mole over chicken or enchiladas, and has a mole verde (green) available for chicken, too.