Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Mario Granados of Tikal Restaurant

Darwin Amador and Mario Granados of Tikal Restaurant Cocina Maya (Rafael Orellana)

Mario Granados of


4838 E. Huntington Drive South, Los Angeles (El Sereno) 323-352-9274

One of the top reasons for food lovers to live in Los Angeles is the wide variety of culinary experiences to be had throughout the city. Sometimes you can even find a myriad of different cuisines all on one block. I used to have a Guatemalan co-worker, however, who asked me if I had ever tried any of his native dishes, and I was surprised to realize that I didn't even know of any Guatemalan restaurants in my neighborhood. I have seen some Guatemalan establishments near MacArthur Park in Westlake, but since I would have no clue what to order and don't speak enough Spanish to communicate with a waitress, I'm not bold enough to venture into one of them on my own. But thanks to Tikal Restaurant Cocina Maya opening just a few miles from my house, and its co-owners Darwin Amador and Mario Granados, I am no longer ignorant when it comes to Guatemalan fare.

"That's what we're trying to do, fill the void of Guatemalan options throughout the city," confides Mario, who is also the restaurant's head chef. "It's a challenge to have put the restaurant in an area where there's not a lot of Guatemalans, but you take your chances and risks. To us, it's an adventure, and we see it as our job to represent wherever we can."

As soon as you step into Tikal Restaurant, soothing marimba beats fill your ears while your eyes feast on the colorful artisan goods in the restaurant's shop area. As he leads me to a seat at a table, Darwin tells me that all of the handmade quilts, purses and ceramics, as well as the packaged food items like herbal tea and dried fruit for sangria, in the store are imported directly from Guatemala.

The two entrepreneurs met while in college and became fast friends, sharing a dream of one day opening their own business. After graduating, they decided to save every penny they made at their day jobs – Mario did social work, and Darwin was a math teacher for L.A. Unified School District – towards their goal.

"Five years after graduating, we thought we generated enough to start a business. Food was the main focus for the business because my hobby has always been cooking, and that's what we decided to open a restaurant," Mario remembers. "But we didn't even know how hard it was to start a business, let alone a restaurant. We thought we had saved enough money after five years, but you can never have too much money when starting a business, especially a restaurant. We consider ourselves to be blessed to have found a place that was an existing restaurant that already had a lot of the permits, otherwise it would have cost us an arm and a leg."

Although Mario worked in a restaurant for six months and took every hospitality and restaurant management course that Glendale Community College offered on nights and weekends to fit around his work schedule, he says that some of the major trials they have had as a new establishment stem from not having a strong background in the industry.

"It's hard not knowing some of the terminology, policies and regulations that you need to know, and that's due to the fact that we weren't in the industry to begin with," he admits. "We're learning a new vocabulary, and there's nothing we have to compare it to. For example, depending on your location, summers tend to be pretty bad for restaurants because a lot of people go out of the country. Not knowing things like that about the industry has been difficult. You can study about it, but experience speaks for itself, and we have learned the hard way."

In spite of their lack of industry training, the duo have carved a niche for themselves in the neighborhood of El Sereno, gaining a reputation for deliciously authentic Guatemalan dishes that are based on food from Mario's childhood. He was born in Guatemala and moved to Los Angeles with his family at age 10. Growing up in South Central (aka South Los Angeles), they mainly ate meals at home where chuchitos and black beans were some of Mario's favorites.

"I do remember going to a Guatemalan bakery on Sunday mornings, but we fell more into the homestyle way of cooking. That's the reason why I decided to do this kind of cuisine at Tikal, because it's what I know," tells Mario. "My mom would cook a lot, and she kept it very traditional. Chuchitos, tamales wrapped in corn husks, were my favorite growing up. The masa is actually overcooked, and that's what makes it so unique from the rest of the tamales in the northern part of Guatemala. No Guatemalan household can last long without black beans. Even now, they're a must at my house; I could eat them every single day and not get tired of them."

Tikal's Jamarindo, Horchata, Enchilada and Garnachas
Black beans simmered in vegetable stock are featured in one of the appetizers I sample at Tikal, the Tostaditas. Three fried corn tortillas are each topped with a different sauce: guacamole, tomato and the beans. They're the perfect accompaniment to the refreshing glass of Jamarindo that Darwin recommended I try. Hibiscus and tamarind are blended together and infused with mint and ginger for a red-hued juice that has just the right balance of sweet and tangy. They also serve sangria, Famosa Guatemalan beer and a Horchata that is more heavily spiced than most.

Another small plate, the Garnachas, have become one of Tikal's signature dishes.

"They've definitely been the most popular menu item," marvels Mario. "It's funny because garnachas aren't a traditional Guatemalan dish, you usually find them at street fairs. You're not going to go to Guatemala and find someone making garnachas at home all the time."

Even though they're not that traditional, they are unquestionably appetizing. Akin to sopes, garnachas start with a semi-fried corn tortilla that is capped off with beef, pickled cabbage and carrots, tomato sauce, cheese and parsley. The contrasting textures of the slightly crisp shell, tender meat and firm vegetables make for the perfect bite. It's easy to see why many patrons have found this dish to be so addicting.

As I enjoy an Enchilada, which is nothing like the Mexican version, but rather a fried corn tortilla covered in lettuce, a mix of sautéed beef and vegetables, pickled beets and cabbage, tomato sauce, parsley and grated cheese, I admire the various photos of Tikal National Park that hang on the walls. Mario stresses that the Tikal ruins are an important symbol of Guatemala, thus making for the ideal name for their restaurant.

"What Chichen Itza is to Mexico or what Machu Picchu is to Peru, the Tikal ruins are to Guatemala. Our inspiration came through this park; we knew that we wanted to take this restaurant and make it resemble the spirit of Tikal. I've been there twice, and the first time was overwhelming," he recalls. "Guatemala is considered to be the heart of the Mayan world. That's the reason why we named the restaurant for the park and have the photos on our walls, to have people know that it exists."

Mario's passion for his culture finds its way into the dishes served at Tikal. He takes family recipes and adds his own personal touches to everything, taking away or adding ingredients according to what he thinks Angelenos would like most. Before opening, he and Darwin hosted several tastings at their home, inviting friends and people of different age groups and ethnicities to sample dishes and fill out comment cards. The delectable Pan con Chile sandwich is a prime example of Mario putting a spin on the traditional. A chile relleno (an egg battered roasted bell pepper stuffed with sautéed beef and veggies) is placed into a fluffy roll along with lettuce, tomato sauce, parsley, grated cheese and a mayonnaise spread.

The real standout on Tikal's menu is Mario's version of Pepian Colorado, the national stew of Guatemala.

The Pepian Colorado (Rafael Orellana/Living Out Loud LA)
"When people read that the Pepian is the national dish on the menu they want to try it, and it gets a great response," he says. "In Mexico, there are regional dishes – whatever's cooked in Yucatán isn't cooked in the central or northern parts. Same thing with Guatemala, even though we're small, we're also regional. Certain foods are eaten in one place but maybe not another. With Pepian, hardly anybody will tell you that they don't know what it is, regardless of where they're from. You could find it in homes and even being sold outside of markets. A lot of people cook it a lot of different ways. Some cook it very watery, some very thick, like a sauce. I do it in between."

He simmers chicken in a richly flavored broth with chiles, green beans and chunks of güisquil (chayote squash), and serves it with white rice and a tomalito, which can be added to the soup as thickening agents. The dish is a bowl of comfort, like a hug from your grandma, and you can see Mario's happiness whenever he watches someone enjoy his Pepian.

Both Darwin and Mario take pride in educating Angelenos about Guatemalan cuisine, as evidenced in their special event known as Journey on a Dish.

"We decided to call it Journey on a Dish because we take people on a journey with the different regional dishes that Guatemala has to offer. For the first one, we did the western part, and from there different regions from there," tells Mario, who goes on to explain the premise behind the fourth event, which just happened on Monday night. "During the months of July and August, there are a lot of fairs going on in Guatemala, and like at any fair, food is unique to each one. So for Journey on a Dish IV we decided to do some of the fair food: garnachas, enchiladas, mixtas (a hot dog wrapped in a corn tortilla rather than a bun topped with cabbage), elotes (grilled corn topped with mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, hot sauce and queso fresco), traditional candy and a beverage called Orangeade. We never thought it would have such a great response, but as soon as we announce them people call to make reservations for parties of eight or 10 right away."

What's surprising is that the diners who come for Journey on a Dish aren't just Guatemalans reminiscing over favorite dishes from their pasts, they come from many different backgrounds. In fact, only two percent of them are usually Guatemalan, and this speaks to Mario's most beloved aspect of the city of Los Angeles as a whole.

"It has to be the diversity, it's something you can't get anywhere else. I just love how in L.A., you name it, what are you into, and the city will have something for you. That's what makes it so outstanding," he reflects. "I've been to other major cities like Miami and New York that have the same aspect, but being from L.A. I hold true to what I've experienced since age 10. You just have such a variety of things; the moment you step foot outside your door you learn something new, and you're constantly being surprised. We've had customers who are half-Chinese and Caucasian, but their Chinese mother lived in Colombia so they speak Spanish. I'm looking at them going, 'You're Asian, but why are you speaking Spanish?' Only L.A. has such diversity within diversity. There's so much diversity, and you learn from it every day."

Mario loves to take advantage of this diversity by constantly seeking out new cuisines to try on his days off from the restaurant.

"We've met a lot of chefs since opening, so we try to hit their places. I live in Carson where there's a lot of Filipino and Vietnamese culture nearby, so we're always visiting those places. Indian food is another of my favorites," he confesses. "We like to go to places that are distinctly different from Latin just to try new stuff."

As they continue to explore Los Angeles' culinary landscape, Darwin and Mario are also spreading their knowledge about what Guatemala has to offer through Tikal Restaurant Cocina Maya. If they continue to pour every ounce of their zest for the culture into the restaurant, its future is guaranteed to be as solid as the Mayan ruins at Tikal.

"It's been nine months since we opened, and we're excited about that," Mario says. "We're really looking forward to doing new events and menu items next year. So far we've received a good response, and people have been very welcoming, and we're happy about that."

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