We ate a lot of black beans and eggs and fried chicken the month we spent riding buses around Guatemala–enough, actually, that we grew tired of those otherwise tasty staples. It was the rainy season, and alternatives in the muddy mountain villages were often nonexistent. Sometimes we could find atole–a steaming corn masa drink, flavored with dark brown sugar and cinnamon, thick as porridge–to nourish us during the cold, wet mornings, but we often felt desperate for something fresh and light. Gradually we learned to keep a sharp eye out for tattered tarps, usually strung up in a sheltered corner along a sodden path between buildings, where a woman would be selling crisp corn tostadas, topped with a neon-bright tangle of carrot, beet, and cabbage slaw and swirls of crema and hot sauce. They were messy as hell to eat, the tortillas shattering as we bit into them, the salad and sauces dripping through our fingers as the rain washed down our faces, but they were absolutely delicious.
“Well, it’s almost as messy here!” my husband exclaimed indignantly as he looked around urgently for extra napkins to mop his face and shirt. We were eating lunch at Antonio’s Coney Island on Washtenaw between Golfside and Hewitt. He was trying, with only limited success, to eat his enchiladas catrachas with some grace, but these Honduran tostadas, topped with braised ground beef, a cabbage-carrot-beet salad, and hard-boiled egg and avocado slices didn’t yield well to fork or to hand.
Although the restaurant has an extensive standard Coney Island-style menu, the list of interest is that of the platillos especiales, a group of Central American specialties put together by owners Irene Serrano and Miguel Martinez (the chef). That fried chicken we ate in Guatemala is on it, along with tajadas, fried green plantain slices. The plato tipico features a fried egg with black beans, here augmented with a choice of meat. Tacos de pollo are excellent–corn tortillas wrapped into thick cylinders filled with seasoned chicken, then deep-fried and finished with more of that tri-colored slaw, hot sauce, and grated cheese.
A churrasquito is much like a well-stuffed Mexican steak taco, a baleada a bean quesadilla, best augmented with the optional scrambled egg and avocado. For something more exotic, try the wonderful platano frito relleno–a whole ripe plantain, fried and then slit open, stuffed with refried beans, and topped with cheese and crema; it’s big enough to share as a side or to eat alone as a vegetarian entree. The yuca con chicharron is a surprisingly addictive combo of steamed, fried yucca chunks, cabbage salad, homemade pork rinds, and spicy pickles, bound together by a mayonnaise-based sauce. (Brought home for lunch one afternoon, it was a dish several people who had probably never had pork rinds or yucca, much less in combination, enjoyed with great relish.)
The best day to go to Antonio’s is Sunday, especially now, during the winter months. Sometimes atole is on the chalkboard, or better, champurrado–atole with chocolate blended in. Sunday is also when caldo de mariscos is available, a seafood stew chock full of its namesake–including krab–in a rich, warming coconut milk broth. Caldo de res is a beef soup with a deep savory broth, succulent meat, and hearty vegetables. Both come in small and large sizes, though I can’t imagine anyone but a linebacker eating the plato grande.
Like the enchiladas, both are messy to eat; a crab leg in its shell looms out of the seafood stew, and a corn cob and large, unwieldy chunks of beef bob in the soup. But both are absolutely delicious, and, like much good food, worth the dribble down the chin, the stained shirt, and the sloppy fingers.
Antonio’s Coney Island
2896 Washtenaw, Ypsilanti
Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat. 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun. 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
Platillos especiales from $2-$12.50