When it comes to south-of-the-border restaurants, Denver is certainly not lacking in Mexican-cuisine options — but what about farther south? Aside from a smattering of Salvadoran joints frying up pupusas, the countries of Central America have yet to establish a firm presence on Denver’s culinary map. Where, for example, can we look for the specialties of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras? One family, at least, is looking out for its fellow Guatemalans, at eateries on opposite ends of the city; Leo Reyes runs two versions of La Guatemalteca, each featuring the food of his home country in different ways.
In early 2015, Reyes opened a small restaurant at 1500 Littleton Boulevard in Littleton as a crosstown addition to the bakery and market he’s owned at 10329 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora for the past nine years. At the original, you’ll find tidy, well-stocked shelves of Central American groceries and other sundries; a small bakery counter featuring sweet cookies, buns and breads; and a lunch counter with a very short menu of daily offerings. There’s a sign on the building facing Colfax, but you’ll need to turn the corner at Hanover Street to find the parking-lot entrance and front door.
The Littleton La Guatemalteca is a breakfast, lunch and dinner spot open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. There’s a small selection of baked goods here, as well, but the main draw is the menu of Guatemalan and Mexican food. Familiar items like tacos, burritos and rellenos pop up, and there’s even a plate of Salvadoran pupusas, the stuffed tortilla rounds that are eaten throughout Central America. For the most part, Guatemalan cooking shows itself more in the flavors here than with unusual fare.
For example, tamales are on the menu, but they’re big (an order includes one tamal for $3.75) and wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks. Each tamal is stuffed with pork or chicken, but the sauces differ subtly from their Mexican counterparts. And the rellenos are lightly coated sweet chiles stuffed with a stewy mixture of beef, potato, carrots and green beans instead of the cheesy, crunchy, deep-fried bombs you’ll find at typical Den-Mex joints.
I went for a late-morning breakfast, choosing the Guatemalan desayuno over more Mexican and American options like omelets, pancakes or huevos rancheros. A simple plate of fried eggs (I got a lucky double yolk in one of my eggs as a sunny-side freebie) and refried beans was made special by the addition of fried sweet plantains and a chubby link of Guatemalan chorizo, which had an herbal note that distinguished it from Mexican chorizo. A ramekin of pungent crumbled cheese and a side of crema (more akin to mayonnaise than sour cream or crème fraîche, at least as served here) added tangy notes to the breakfast.
On my way to the cash register, I stopped at the bakery display and chose a small loaf of sesame-seed-coated bread that resembled cornbread. Reyes told me that it was called a quesadilla Guatemalteca, a quickbread made with a considerable amount of cheese in the batter — and not in any way similar to the more common quesadillas made with flour tortillas.
Intrigued, I looked up some recipes when I got home and discovered that this style of quesadilla is traditionally made with rice flour and so is naturally gluten-free. La Guatemalteca’s version seemed to be made with wheat flour, so if you’re on a gluten-free diet, I would recommend asking at the counter before you indulge. Still, I was curious as to how a rice-flour version would bake up.
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Later in the day, I headed to the Colfax bodega and picked up a block of the queso fresco recommended in the recipe I selected. The store didn’t carry rice flour (though there were shelves filled with flour made from fava beans, oats, maize and other ground grains), but another item caught my eye: fresh chorizo, in the same style as the sausage that had graced by breakfast plate — so I grabbed a bagful for backyard grilling. Later, I stopped at Sprouts for Bob’s Red Mill white-rice flour.
All of the recipes I found for Guatemalan quesadilla were very simple, with only cheese, rice flour, eggs, sugar, cream and baking soda as ingredients. I picked one from a travel blog called Life in Guatemala, since the accompanying photo looked similar to what I’d purchased at La Guatemalteca. Based on the lack of gluten and the quantity of eggs in the recipe, I was certain my results would differ from the professional bakery’s. What I ended up with was a moister, springier version with more of an eggy flavor and a milder cheese taste.
Here’s the recipe from the website:
1 cup rice flour
2 cups shredded cheese (queso fresco, cotija, parmesan)
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup heavy cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. If you have a convection oven, set the oven for 325 degrees on convect bake. In a mixing bowl, combine the rice flour, cheese and sugar with the baking soda and toss to mix well. (This also coats and separates the cheese shreds.) In a separate bowl, whisk together the four eggs with the heavy cream. Pour this into the dry ingredients and mix just until the dry ingredients are moistened well.
Spray an eight-by-eight-inch baking pan (glass works well) with cooking spray, or grease with butter or shortening. Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
I suspect that the bold, salty flavor of La Guatemalteca’s quesadilla could be replicated by using cotija instead of queso fresco, but I also like the mild, coffee-cake version that this recipe produced. One thing that it leaves out, though, is sesame seeds, which should be sprinkled liberally over the batter before the pan goes in the oven.