According to Census data, Guatemala is the Central American country with the most representation in Chicago. A handful of restaurants and bakeries from Albany Park to Logan Square and Humboldt Park cater to this community. Xecul, named after the small town in the Guatemalan highlands where co-owner María Chigüil was born, is the latest. The restaurant was formerly called Las Palmas, but changed names last month to avoid confusion with others using the same moniker.
In the Technicolor postcard of the town’s bright church that greets customers at the Albany Park restaurant, angels mix with the twin jaguars of the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya. The oldest surviving copy of the translated manuscript happens to reside at the Newberry Library on the Near North Side. The text narrates the creation of the K’iche’ people, who, according to the story, after failed attempts that included clay and wood, were successfully made from white and yellow maize.
Xecul’s (pronounced ʃeˈkul) offerings range from traditional dishes like a thick stew called pepián (similar to Mexican mole in its preparation technique and ingredients, but not spicy) to hilachas, a plate made with cooked shredded beef simmered in a mild sauce of tomatoes and tomatillos. Also available are potato tamales (known as paches), street food (including pupusas), and even fast food.
After working at restaurants for more than a decade, Chigüil’s husband, Osmar Carreto, dreamed of running his own: “All of those years were like going to school. I told my wife one day we would work for nobody but ourselves.”
The couple opened their restaurant in North Park before the space in Albany Park became available. Located in Chicago’s Northwest Side, Albany Park is one of the most critical points of convergence for Guatemalans and home to a few other Guatemalan restaurants like Amatitlán and El Quetzal.
Mexican dishes like carne a la tampiqueña and pozole are currently available on Xecul’s online menu posted on its website. According to Carreto, the page will be updated to feature their Guatemalan offerings in the next few weeks. Those interested in Guatemalan specialites will have to use takeout apps like Grubhub to order caldo de gallina or pepián. The menus shouldn’t be a surprise for customers who see the flags of Mexico and Guatemala decorating Xecul’s walls and windows, and textiles on the tables nodding to the colorful handcrafts of the Central American country.
It is easy to identify similarities between a few of the Guatemalan dishes and those of southeastern Mexico. Complex sauces like moles or recados, atoles, and ingredients like corn, beans, plantains, chilies, tomatillos, speak to both a shared pre-Columbian territory and a colonial experience under Spanish rule. Although the cuisines may live side by side on the menu, they are different.
For example, the counties’ tamales differ. Guatemalan-style chuchitos are usually made with masa and stuffed with meat. Their texture is smoother, denser, and even drier than Mexican tamales. At Xecul, chuchitos come with a whole chicken leg.
Another of the most popular dishes, caldo de gallina criolla, is a chicken soup with vegetables that requires a freshly slaughtered free-range bird for proper preparation. “Criolla means homegrown, so the chicken is smaller and has a different flavor,” Chigüil says. The couple is convinced that their customers can tell the difference and that the execution of this dish sets them apart.
Other available plates the couple recommends trying include the traditional and celebratory red pepián — a stew thickened with pumpkin seeds, which like mole, is prepared for weddings, birthdays, and funerals. Carreto also suggests sampling the rice tamales. Made with ground rice, a very mild red sauce, pimento, olives, and raisins, the tamales are wrapped in banana leaves. While the plate might be reminiscent of its Oaxacan cousin, the similarity is only in presentation.
Xecul currently displays the specials on a sign outside the restaurant, and the couple plans to share them on social media periodically.
Xecul, 4959 N. Kedzie Avenue, Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.