To truly understand the cuisine of Guatemala, it helps to understand why this Central American paradise is known as the “Land of Eternal Spring.” With nineteen diverse ecosystems, Guatemala boasts of jungles, forests, beaches, volcanoes and an expanse of natural resources. Thick, lush vegetation enrobes seemingly never-ending mountain landscapes in verdant hues. Magnificent pristine waterfalls cascade over those mountains, feeding the rivers that nourish fecund lands. A belt of fire formed by active volcanoes is often shrouded by clouds just as ominous. Bordered at its west by the Pacific and by the Atlantic at its east, Guatemala is graced by a diversity of climates and elevations. Relatively mild year-round, the climate is tropical and sub-tropical but varies greatly in relation to altitude. Topographical diversity ranges from sea level to mountains that climb to more than 13,000 feet. Precipitation in excess of 150-inches per year prevail at higher elevations while near-desert conditions persist elsewhere.
In addition to its well-deserved sobriquet “Land of Eternal Spring,” Guatemala is fittingly known as “the heart of the Mayan world.” Pride in the culture and history of one of world’s greatest civilizations and their formidable accomplishments is understandably deep. For more than a thousand years, Guatemala witnessed the rise of a prodigious people that stood out for its sociocultural evolution, a civilization that developed one of the rare elaborate writing systems in the pre-Colombian continent and a culture that mastered the complexities of mathematics and astronomy with remarkable precision. Mayans also achieved great advances in artwork, architecture and economy.
To understand the cuisine of Guatemala, you also have to understand that the genesis of its contemporary culture and cuisine originated from the merger of two disparate worlds that clashed in the “New World” five-hundred years ago. It would be far too easy to focus on the unfavorable things resultant from Spanish colonization, but such a focus would dishonor the magnificent fusion of flavors that elevated cooking in the New World as a whole. Prior to Spanish colonization, the cuisine of the New World consisted solely of only native ingredients. The arrival of the Spaniards and subsequent waves of immigrants heralded the introduction of new ingredients and cooking techniques as well as a culinary culture fashioned by Spain itself having been conquered by the Moors. Can you imagine preparing such staples as delicious refried beans, stews, soups, sauces and many more dishes without onions and garlic? Yes, they were part of the exchange, as were spices and herbs, such as the trio of bay (laurel) leaves, oregano and thyme, that are native to other parts of the world and now also Guatemalan cooking staples.
To understand the cuisine of Guatemala, it also helps to understand the soul of its Chapines (the proud slang term used by the majority of the population who identify as Guatemaltecos) and their heartfelt connection to their homeland. When my friend and colleague Andi Moran Flores approached me about dining at Eterna Primavera, Albuquerque’s first and only Guatemalan restaurant, she shared her homesickness for the Guatemalan cuisine her dad prepared for her in their California home. After my inaugural visit (there will be more), I asked her for a few words that convey her deep affection for the foods of her ancestral homeland. She demurred “I am not so good with words,” then proceeded to send me a short paragraph of sheer poetry: “What does come to mind though in the changing landscape that is life….I do like to find places that ground me in several time periods of my life that I enjoy, my youth, my young adulthood etc. and I use food to ground me. My youth was surrounded my parents’ cooking, so when I feel nostalgic for that period, I try to find food that helps me remember that time. I am far too busy at IT to cook from scratch (lol). I am just happy I can share this.“
It would be disingenuous of me to credit the confluence of new- and old-world cultures as wholly responsible for the genesis of Guatemalan cuisine. Nature had more than a little bit to do with it long before the rise of the Mayan empire. Among the indispensable comestibles produced in Guatemala are chocolate and coffee. The Land of Eternal Spring is the birthplace of chocolate, deemed “the food of the gods” by the Maya. The quality of chocolate in Guatemala is without peer even today. Similarly, the coffee produced in Guatemala is considered by the cognoscenti to be among the world’s best. Volcanic highlands provide the ideal climate for growing coffee, imbuing the beans grown in Guatemala with a distinctly rich, earthy taste.
Now that you’ve gleaned a brief understanding of some of the factors influencing the culinary culture of Guatemala, you need to experience it. Unless the poetess Andi invites you to her home for dinner, the only place in which you can do so is the aptly named Eterna Primavera (eternal spring). Eterna Primavera is ensconced in a timeworn shopping center in the space that served as the home of Pepper’s Bar-B-Que and Soul Food on San Pedro just north of Central. It’s almost directly across the street from the Alice K. Hoppes African American Pavilion and one of the more bustling entrances to the New Mexico State Fairgrounds. This part of San Pedro is very heavily trafficked.
Eterna Primavera sits back in a relatively inconspicuous storefront location and sometimes southbound traffic is so heavy that it completely blocks northbound traffic’s visibility to the restaurant. Coupled with an austere storefront parking, it’s not an ideal situation for a restaurant with so much promise and so much to offer. There are so very few parking spots in front of the restaurant that prospective diners might be turned away. As we found out, it pays to persevere. Just as the meek will inherit the earth, the hungry shall partake of terrific Guatemalan food…if they can find and park near Eterna Primavera.
To your left as you step inside the colorful edifice is a pastry case showcasing sweet and savory pastries and breads that may elicit involuntary salivation. On glorious display are everything from Guatemalan sesame cookies (champurradas) and Mexican sweet breads (conchas) to bolillos (crusty rolls) and knotted bread whose name I don’t recall. You’d be well advised to place your order for breads and pastries before sitting down for your meal or they might be gone by the time you’ve dined. Owner Nancy Orellana, a gracious and charming woman, told us Albuquerque has a pretty vibrant Guatemalan community that keeps her restaurant bustling, particularly on weekends.
To your right as you enter is the dining room. All of the vestiges of its former home as a popular bastion of barbecue are gone. In their place are assorted (and very colorful) bric-a-brac from Guatemala. An unfurled banner sporting the colors of the national flag welcomes you to “Eterna Primavera” subtitled with “El Sabor de Guatemala.” You’ll glean an appreciation for just how culturally rich the Land of Eternal Spring is by studying the items on the restaurant’s otherwise stark walls. Fauna and flora are both represented as are fierce Mayan totems.
Okay, you can study the restaurant’s decorative touches later. You’ll undoubtedly want to study the menu first. There are some similarities in name and preparation to foods you might find in a Mexican restaurant or maybe a restaurant in Colombia, Venezuela or elsewhere in Latin America, but the differences set Guatemalan cuisine apart. Among familiar fare are platanos (plantains), pupusas, tamales and enchiladas. Don’t expect for them to be exactly the same as at other purveyors of these Latin American favorites. Accept that they’re going to be different than what you may be used to and appreciate them for what they are–absolutely delicious!
Forget starting out with traditional American soft drinks or even Inka Cola from Peru. Adventurous types will love the atol de elote which appears to be the love child of the union of horchata and corn chowder. It’s a sweet, creamy, silky rich drink served so hot it will warm you even atop one of Guatemala’s 13,000-foot peaks. The ancient Maya believed corn was sacred and their descendants share a reverence for it through the preparation of such dishes as atol de elote and tamales de elote. I suffered the indignity of accidentally spilling about half of it on the table, but finishing an entire cup is reason enough to return to Eterna Primavera. Unfortunately, I was so enamored of the atol de elote that I didn’t even try my Kim’s cafe con pan. The “pan” (bread) was champurradas cookie, sort of a cross between biscotti and a sugar cookie. Champurradas are a Guatemalan treat–sweet, crunchy and studded with sesame seeds.
Tostadas have become a ubiquitous source of carbohydrates and deliciousness across the American continents. Like a proverbial tabula rasa (blank slate), crispy corn tortillas form a canvas for sundry toppings. You can literally top a tostada with anything edible. In Guatemala, one of the more popular toppings is a large dollop of noodles along with other toppings typically found on spaghetti. Eterna Primavera offers tostadas topped with guacamole, onions and grated dry cheese. By the way, Guatemala is one of the original birthplaces for avocado in the world. Also available are tostadas topped with beans, onions and cilantro; and tostadas topped with a mild salsa, onion and cilantro. None of the tostadas would be considered gourmet foods, but they’re tasty and delicious.
For my Kim, pupusas (which she still mispronounces as papusas) were a love at first bite event. For the most part, she’s mostly had pupusas in Salvadoran restaurants (pupusas originated in Colombia during pre-colonial times). If you’ve never had a pupusa, here’s a little primer. Pupusas are thick tortillas made of corn and rice dough then stuffed with various ingredients. Pupusas have crossed borders around the world, positioning themselves as one of the most popular Latin American dishes. At Eterna Primavera, my Kim had a pupusa stuffed with cheese and for variety’s sake, a pupusa stuffed with cheese and loroco, the flower of an edible herb native to Guatemala. If you’re a turophile, you’ll love both of these options. There’s enough cheese in these pupusas to top a pizza. The tortillas have a pronounced corn flavor that pairs very well with the mild saltiness of the cheese. Loroco is not at all like any other edible flower you’ve ever had. It has a vegetal, earthy flavor unlike that of any flower and also goes well with cheese.
Andi’s favorite dish, one her dad made for her as she was growing up, is garnaches. It’s the dish she recommended I try. Great choice! Garnaches are a traditional dish composed of fried corn tortillas topped with shredded pork or chicken, shredded cabbage, cheese, salsa and other garnishes. In this case, the fried corn tortillas are about the size of a Mexican sope, much smaller than the pupusa. Eterna Primavera serves this entree in quantities of seven per order. Though they appear snack- or appetizer-sized, four of them did me in. Fortunately, they keep well and make an excellent snack later. Even cold, the shredded pork is the best choice for garnaches.
Taste Antigua explains that “Tamales are at the core of the Mayan diet; the Mayans made tamales for their warriors and travelers in order to provide food for weeks on the go. When the Spanish came to Guatemala, they introduced new flavors to the region, inspiring a mix of New World and Old World ingredients that are incorporated into tamales found in Guatemala today.” One thing that isn’t incorporated into the tamales at Eterna Primavera is piquancy. Though the tamales have a liberal application of salsa, it isn’t hot in the least. It does, however, contrast nicely with the mild though pronounced sweet corn flavor of the masa. The shredded pork is fork-tender, pulling apart easily. This may not be a typical New Mexican tamale, but this is one New Mexican who enjoyed it very much.
A treasure trove of breads and pastries awaited us as we sauntered over to the registrar to settle up. We couldn’t decide what to have so we had several items. The bolillo bread is reminiscent of German brotchen from Dagmar’s Delectables in Rio Rancho. It makes a wonderful canvas for condiments as a sandwich. A pineapple turnover was also reminiscent of the incomparable strudel at Dagmar’s. There’s something within the pastry case for everyone who appreciates the staff of life or some post-prandial sweets.
Not even the Land of Enchantment is blessed with eternal spring, but it’s good to know we can have it any time we visit Eterna Primavera on San Pedro.
Panaderia Guatemalteca Eterna Primavera
303 San Pedro Drive, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 14 October 2022
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Breads, Pastries, Atole De Elote, Cafe Con Pan, Pupusas, Tostadas, Tamales, Garnachas,