El Chapincito | 482 Broadway Ave, Providence | Mon-Sun, 8 am-10 pm | BYOB | Handicapped accessible | 401.273.2320
A recent experience at one of the city’s Latin-American restaurants left me with the distinct impression that if I don’t hurry up and learn Spanish (or at least “menu Spanish”), I’m going to be out of the loop. Not that the menu at the Guatemalan El Chapincito Restaurante didn’t have English translations for most of its items. But trying to ask the waitress a question, such as “What seasonings are in the ‘sea-soned chicken’?”, didn’t work.
Fortunately, a regular customer, José, stepped in as our volunteer translator, and what might have been a stumbling block to ordering turned into an opportunity to interact with the locals. As José proudly told us about his construction job and repeatedly apologized that his English should have been better (he got across“pork ribs” by telling us “pig” and pointing to his own ribs), we once more appreciated the earnest and hard-working spirit of this country’s immigrants.
Another question we posed was about the difference between “chicken soup” and “hen soup.” Jose told us that hen soup is more traditional, and chicken soup is like the American incarnation, so I got a medium-sized bowl of hen soup ($7.50) as my main meal. It came with a generous amount of rice and fresh lime wedges to add as desired.
The broth was aromatic and delicious, with plenty of cilantro and the full flavor of the chopped chicken pieces (bones and fat still attached). I have no idea about the usual way of eating this dish, but I took the chicken onto my plate, pulled the meat off the bone, and put it back in the soup. It was satisfying and tasty.
The two appetizers we decided on were tamalitos de chipilin with thinned sour cream ($2 each), and pupusas (also $2 each). The latter are a Salvadoran specialty, but we were thrilled to find them on the menu. They are hand-made cornmeal patties, with a layer of either meat or cheese between two circles of dough that are grilled on each side. Served with a sharp cabbage/carrot slaw and a mild tomato-based dipping sauce, El Chapincito’s pupusas were terrific.
The tamalitos de chipilin were good, but any lump of cornmeal that’s been steamed with an earthy herb can be a bit dry — the sour cream definitely helped. Chipilin is in the legume family, but its leaves are used in Guatemalan cooking.
Bill studied his options among the supper items. A platter of broiled beef and marinated roast pork had sides of rice, salad, black beans, fried plaintains, and a small serving of soup, all for $12 — the most expensive item on the menu. Another intriguing dish was beef with chirmol, a Guatemalan salsa made from grilled tomatoes, scallions and corn kernels.
He ended up choosing the pork cutlet (chulita) over the ribs (costilla), both described as “fried or in barbecue sauce.” He ordered the latter ($9), and was very pleased with the two chops he received, along with rice, black beans, salad, and three warm tortillas.
I’ve previously had pacaya forrada at Chapincito and liked it. Pacaya is another unusual vegetable favored in Guatemalan cooking. The blossom of the date palm tree, it has a taste akin to asparagus or artichoke. Since it is especially popular during Holy Week, Chapincito had run out of pacaya, which they dip into an egg batter and fry.
Many of Chapincito’s menu items are familiar from Mexican menus, including huevos rancheros among the breakfast listings. In addition there are five variations on scrambled eggs, and meat add-ins are not just ham or sausage, but also broiled beef, roast pork, and fried or seasoned chicken (pollo asado). Those “seasonings” turn out to be garlic, pepper, oregano, and, usually, grilling over mesquite.
Although Chapincito does not offer alcoholic beverages, we’ve always found the horchata (an almondy rice-and-milk drink) or tamarindo (diluted tamarind juice) nice complements to the spiciness of south-of-the-border cuisine. On this visit, Bill had the maranon (cashew-flavored drink), but I found it too bitter.
I stuck with hot chocolate, delectably rich with cinnamon and plenty of cocoa. Arroz con leche (rice in milk) or atoll de platano (a hot drink with plantains) were also on dock. I would heartily recommend any of the warm beverages as a fitting end to a Chapincito meal. Just sip slowly and sway (or bounce) to the engaging Latin music pouring from the corner jukebox. That and our chat with José left us with an extra spring in our step.
Johnette Rodriguez can be reached at