"You come to this country without any money."
Rony Ordoñez is frank about this collective immigrant experience. But as dashes of afternoon sunlight bounce off the celestial blue paint on the wall behind him, it's evident that he can now share this truth with levity, in his very own restaurant, after nearly two decades in America.
El Chapin, the Guatemalan restaurant Ordoñez opened a year ago with his family, is, like many culinary hideaways, located in a strip mall and well worth the sometimes-aggravating journey down 15-501 to find it. Two potted lime trees welcome visitors at the concrete edge of the restaurant's entrance. The decal on the door reads, "Bienvenidos a nuestro rinconcito chapin." Welcome to our little Guatemalan corner.
The best table in the house is adjacent to a large window and shelves of dried beans—red, black, and brown—neatly stacked in premeasured Ziploc bags for sale. Playful marimba rhythms come from the radio speakers overhead. A potted aloe plant on the table soaks up the rest of the window light, fanning its succulent stems over bottles of hot sauce that sit in lieu of salt and pepper shakers. Bright, folksy printed fabrics drape each table. Illustrations of women weaving in traditional dress peek out from under a plate of tamales steaming atop a banana leaf. On the other end of the tablecloth, the word Guatemala acts as a rainbow halo for whatever drink you order: the freshly made blueberry or cantaloupe juice is a must.
You could go to El Chapin at least three times and only put a minor dent in the antojitos menu. The smaller items are only $1.75 each. Larger tamales run at $3.25. Ask one of the servers if you're stumped on making a selection. Your first visit should include the following: at least one tamalito de chipilin, a mini tamal mixed with a green, leafy herb meant to be dipped in a salsa or smothered with a light tomato sauce and fresh cheese crumbles; a chuchito, similar but filled with your choice of chicken or beef (both are steamed in corn husks and topped with Ordoñez's cabbage and beet salad); and one or two bite-size garnachas, small, thick corn tortillas topped with a minty ground beef and the aforementioned toppings.
Ordoñez tinkers with the salsa bar every other day, using whatever fresh chiles are available to create spice accompaniments based in either green tomatillos or red Roma tomatoes. His escabeche, a quick pickled vegetable medley, also changes. The carrot version trumps the rest. Grilled jalapeños appear frequently on the condiment bar.
On another day, treat yourself to a heartier lunch with the pollo en pepian, a steaming bowl of simmered chicken on the bone deluged in a warm, orange, stew-like sauce. Ordoñez says his mother, Marta Delia, is "la dueña de las recetas," and, even when I asked her myself, she wouldn't give her recipe away. From what I could cull from their comments and the flavors, her secret ingredients include a blend of toasted sesame seeds and dry mild red chiles. The stew features chunks of chayote, a squash indigenous to Mexico and Central America, and zucchini. A side of rice, beet and cabbage salad, and thick, hand-made tortillas fresh off the comal round out the best meal in the restaurant.
For a broth fully infused with nutrients, the caldo de pata, or cow feet soup, is a saltier and more piquant comfort food. The grilled steak entrée offers a basic and delicious DIY-style meal (with salad, tortillas, and grilled green onion) more than worth it if only for the chirmol, a Guatemalan-style salsa that substitutes fresh mint for standard cilantro. Don't make the gringo mistake of dipping the steak like I did; Ordoñez quickly pointed out that I should just pour the chirmol over the filet the way they do.
It would be insulting to call El Chapin a greasy spoon, or even classify it with an outdated term like "ethnic." The Ordoñezes used the word orgullo when talking about their restaurant: pride.
"I never thought I'd open my own restaurant," says Ordoñez, who grew up farming in the rural state of Jutiapa in a town with no name. He worked for over a decade as a general manager at Chapel Hill's Mediterranean Deli. It was the owner, Jamil Kadoura, who encouraged him to open his own place.
All the Ordoñez boys—fraternal twins Jeremiah and Elias, seventeen, and their younger brother, Luis, sixteen—help out. They also got their start at Mediterranean Deli. El Chapin belongs to everyone, Ordoñez says: his parents, his wife, his sisters, and his children. They, especially, have gained a greater respect for their culture while working for him.
"We mostly speak English [to one another]," says Luis. "Sometimes we'd forget some Spanish words because we didn't speak it that well. And they'd make fun of us." He points to his grandparents and father. "And then when we opened the restaurant, we kind of got our skills back."
"But the food that we eat at home is now here," Elias adds. "We get kind of bored with it."
"Then let's just eat pizza at home," Ordoñez says with a laugh.
For those of us who are sick of pizza, El Chapin is open seven days a week.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A Family Affair"