Saturday, January 14, 2006

Lo Llevo Dentro (I carry it inside)

I am not so snobby that I'll claim I don't eat fast food. I am snobby enough to say I only eat at McDonald's or Burger King under unusual circumstances, but I don't pretend that take-out chinese is way better just because the local hole-in-the-wall isn't part of a big heartless multi-national corporation. But since going to fast-food restaurants is not part of our general routine, we have managed to miss out on one of the great success stories of Guatemalan capitalism.

This past week, though, our efforts to truly understand the spirit of the Guatemalan people, and to show our guests the heart of Guatemala, we made our first visit to Pollo Campero ("Country Chicken"). Much to the embarrassment of The Lovely Katherine, who prefers a more incognito form of sociological research, even in the most ridiculous of establisments, the staff photographer for the Holla went along to document the experience.

By lore, there are something like nine families that own 99% of Guatemala. Perhaps seven of these families accept this burden with some humility. For the other two, a little more self-promotion is in order. The Castillo family owns Gallo, the beer monopoly, and has rented ad space on every other flat surface in the country. The Gutierrez family owns Pollo Campero, which demands less advertising space because there is always an actual Campero restaurant in sight at any location in Guatemala. This chain of fried-chicken restaurants is a source of national pride in Guatemala, as it has conquered much of Central America, and is even making inroads in heavily Latino markets in the U.S. Stories abound of flights to America that smell like chicken because every Guatemalan in L.A. asks relatives to bring a bucket of Campero when they visit.

This is kind of baffling to an outsider and fried-chicken dilettante such as your correspondent, who could not tell Campero from KFC if his life depended on it. The verdict? Campero is tasty, as is any food that primarily consists of hot grease. (How tasty it might be after the five-hour flight from Guatemala to Los Angeles remains a topic for further research.) While the food may not transcend American standards, and the decor is decidedly utilitarian, the service is clearly be the selling point here. The restaurant we went to featured table service, including a waitress who was thoroughly baffled by our incompetence, as demonstrated by ordering a la carte even though the combo meals are much more economical. While McDonald's employees will always ask if you want to SuperSize your meal, I have never seen one who seemed concerned for the well-being of any customer who declined. Campero also kindly served our sodas free of parasite-laden ice without even being asked to, despite the common knowledge that the profit margin is much higher if you fill the cup with ice first. (It remains unclear if this is standard or if it was a special favor because they could tell we were influential gringos. We may have to ask the Holla restaurant reviewer to start dining in disguise.)

In all, it was certainly a worthwhile cultural experience, but at a price -- the digestive effort it demanded limited our further explorations for the day to a little stroll around the central park. We tried to get the health-food Yin to the fast-food Yang later that day by going to a place that bills itself (in English) as a "Ambia -- A New Age Restaurant." But it turns out they mostly serve paninis and tortilla soup, which won't be winning the Weight-Watchers seal of approval, either. Exactly what was "New Age" about a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich remains unknown, but it is clear that prospects of Ambia expanding into Houston and Chicago are dim for now.

1 comment:

EEK! said...

Excellent post. Katherine looks like she's going to die of embarrassment in the Staff Photographer shot. You look like you've received an off-price frontal lobotomy. I'm in love with that photo.

You can't give a report on a place without detailing the average grocery store and the homegrown fast food. Well holla'd.