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Sometimes, late at night, I start imagining there are only two kinds of restaurants: the kind that makes you feel as though you should be grateful for even dining there, and the kind that seems delighted that you've selected that restaurant from the thousands of options available to you.
You all know the former. The host checks your reservations three or four times at the door (as though you were trying to sneak in), and the waitstaff acts like you'd be much happier eating at Shoney's.
Lo Nuestro is a perfect example of the latter. Located in a strip mall of little promise and even less pretense, this Guatemalan restaurant is small and family-operated, the proverbial hole in the wall. One of those walls is covered with a brightly colored hand-painted mural of the Guatemalan countryside, the others with wall hangings and mirrors. Even the windows come with adornment, cheerful paintings of tropical birds. It's clean and friendly, very friendly, even though no one there speaks much English. (How's this for friendly: Strangers are invited to share cake if anyone at the restaurant is celebrating a birthday.) Even better, Lo Nuestro serves up simple, no-frills, tasty Central American food.
The appetizers are much more adventurous than the familiar entrées, and you easily can make a meal out of them. Of course, there are tostadas ($1.25), guacamole ($1.25) and the like, which are good, but you can get those anywhere. Try instead the garanchas ($4.25 small, $6.99 large). Tiny tortillas, slightly larger than bite-size, are fried then covered with a mixture of sautéed seasoned beef, onions, cheese and tomato sauce. Sounds like nachos, right? Wrong. With their topping of spicy marinated cabbage salad, these ridiculously addictive garanchas are several notches above the ordinary nacho. In fact, with all that cabbage salad, they could be considered, well, almost healthy. Almost.
Even more unusual -- and more delicious -- are the enchiladas chapinas ($1.99). Piled on top of a regular-size fried tortilla is more of that marinated cabbage (Lo Nuestro's version is spicier but not as tart as the cabbage I sampled at Los Ranchitos; see my review, "Crema de la Crema," February 10, 2000), chopped green beans, carrots, shredded beets, carne picada (shredded dried beef), cheese, parsley, hot sauce and a hard-boiled egg. A rather incongruous mixture of ingredients, but it works, really well. And I don't like beets.
Strange as the chapinas are, they seem absolutely traditional compared to the weird (and not nearly as wonderful) pacayas envueltas en huevo ($2.50). Palm fruit, a novelty to me, is dipped in egg batter and fried, then topped with tomato sauce. The first bite is terrific, mostly because it's just crispy batter and sauce. With the next bite you reach the palm fruit, which is unusual, to say the least. It looks like a bundle of wormy white shoots, like thick spaghetti, slightly tough, a bit spicy, a bit bitter.
The entrées return you to more solid ground. The plato tipico, otherwise known as "typical plate" ($3.99), is basically a deconstructed dish of huevos rancheros: It consists of good refried black beans, toast, fried sweet plantains, fried eggs, tortillas and sour cream, each relegated to its own portion of the plate. Deeply satisfying for lunch, dinner or late-night, it puts a certain "Grand Slam" plate to shame.
Like Texans, Guatemalans enjoy eating slabs of grilled meat. If you want beef, try the churrasco ($8.99). It's a nicely seasoned steak served with black beans, a lettuce salad and a lovely, cool potato salad with green beans, radishes and onions. Pork lovers should sample the carne adobada ($5.99), a thinner slice of meat, highly seasoned and served with rice, lettuce and tomato.
In the mood for chicken, I ask the waitress for a recommendation. Without hesitation, she suggests the chargrilled chicken (pollo parilladas, $5.99). It turns out to be a well-grilled, juicy chicken covered with sautéed vegetables. But it's still just grilled chicken, so on my next visit, I strike out on my own and try the pollo ala chulla ($6.50), a large chicken breast, pounded thin, seasoned and sautéed, and served with a rich cream sauce flavored with lots and lots of cilantro. I would call it fabulous if not for the unfortunate sprinkling of mixed vegetables (corn, cubed carrots and lima beans). Ugh. Next time I'll ask them to hold the veggies.
There are desserts on the menu, including rice pudding and toasted bread with honey, but I have yet to sample one. Each time I have dined at Lo Nuestro, my dessert has been birthday cake. It seems there's always someone celebrating a chronological milestone at the place. A good sign, if you ask me. Besides, I'm not one to complain about birthday cake for dessert.
In fact, I have very little to complain about with Lo Nuestro. Any restaurant that offers adventurous appetizers, quality home-style entrées and the chance for birthday cake works for me.
Lo Nuestro, 9679 Bissonnet, (713)271-5593.