La Chapinita Panaderia, Cafeteria & Taqueria, 804 Chambers Street, Trenton (609) 396-3759
Open 7 days 5 AM to 10 PM
This is a story about a nice new Guatemalan restaurant in Chambersburg, but also about transition and renewal, as it happens to be located where Papas Tomato Pies used to call home for 60-odd years until it left for Hamilton Square in 2013.
Don’t let the name fool you, La Chapinita offers a full Guatemalan menu. It contains a counter with some baked goods (frankly, Central American baking doesn’t do much for me), plus a steam table with empanadas and quick take out foods (explaining the Cafeteria in its name). But order off the menu, and you’ll get fresh cooked food out of the kitchen.
The image above shows the Carne Adobada platter ($6.99!) I ordered for lunch yesterday (July 2014). The Carne, was spicy and PERFECTLY cooked. I had to ask my waitress for the salsa verde, but she brought it happily and it was homemade (and no extra charge). I admit this is the ONLY dish I’ve sampled so far, but any restaurant that can do this well (and present the food so handsomely) knows what it’s doing. I can’t wait to get back.
There’s plenty of table space inside, inherited from Papas, which is clean and pleasant enough. The old mural on the wall of Paris (which was incongruous in Papas) is even a little odder in the current context. BYOB.
More broadly, anyone who lives in Trenton and is missing out on the Hispanic Revival, is missing the boat. Does another Guatemalan joint make up for the loss of Papas? Maybe not by itself. But Papas itself was a legacy of a wave of Italian immigration 100 years ago which, at the time, wasn’t that dissimilar to what’s happening today in Chambersburg. We’re living through a process of transition and revival. 5, 10, 20 years from now great things will have emerged. La Chapinita is one more step in this process.
Eugenia, the charming woman who no doubt will serve you if you visit Mariachi Grill, comes from a small town near Monterrey (northeastern Mexico, not far from the Texas border). Her mother taught her a recipe for Tres Leches, a fabulous dessert made all over Central America from sponge cake and traditionally three different kinds of milk: whole, condensed, and evaporated (plus a whipped cream topping). Her mother taught Eugenia well: her Tres Leches is exquisite, the best I’ve ever had. And I love Tres Leches. For me, there’s no more to be said.
Perhaps, however, you’d like to know more. Mariachi Mexican Grill is a small restaurant in a strip mall in West Trenton (part of Ewing). This restaurant is not to be confused with the “El Mariachi” establishments (Taqueria and Restaurante) so beloved to Hidden Trenton readers. Unlike the El Mariachi restaurants, which serve Guatemalan food, Mariachi Grill serves Mexican. Some of the dishes are nearly identical (e.g. Tacos), though Mariachi Grill’s come with refried beans and rice. Others are distinctly Mexican: about every other weekend, Eugenia makes a homemade Chicken Mole, which some call the national dish of Mexico: Mole is a sauce made from ground chocolate and chiles, and she does it very well.
The standard menu is fresh, homemade, and reasonably priced (though slightly more expensive than the equivalent in a typical Trenton Guatemalan joint). Marchiach Grill does some nice, homemade salsas, and serve breakfast during the week. But, there are at least half a dozen restaurants in town that do as well, or better. The reason to go all the way out to Ewing is the Trese Leches, or the Mole (call ahead to see if they’re serving it… if they don’t have it, Eugenia will tell you when she’s planning on making it next).
It may seem a little weird to put the City of Philadelphia, a city of 1.5 million people, in a website about Trenton, a burg of 80,000. I suppose most people who live here, and many who are just exploring for the first time, know Trenton is located between New York and Philly. If, like me, you were NY focused before you moved here, you may not know that Philly is a) unbelievably close (34 miles, city center to city center), and b) a really, really cool place to visit.
By unbelievably close, you can hop in your car and be sitting in a bar in Old City 35 minutes later. That’s if you miss traffic, but even during peak morning rush hour it will still be under an hour. You can also take public transit. SEPTA trains run at least hourly (and more frequently on weekdays and especially rush hour). They take 45 minutes to 30th Street Station, and just under an hour to Market East (near Chinatown and Old City). The River Line takes slightly longer, but runs more frequently, and is more reliable. You take it to Camden, then change to PATCO into Old City. Total cost is only $2.75!!!
The other day my wife and I hopped in the car on a Saturday evening, drove to Philly’s Vietnamese section on Washington Street, and dined in a Laotian cafe. After dinner, which was quite reasonably priced and exotically fabulous, with friendly service and patrons, we hopped back in the car. Really, it didn’t take any longer to drive than to North Princeton, and was quicker than New Brunswick.
Philly has just about everything a big city should. Great restaurants ranging from upscale and exquisite to ethnic and dirt cheap, with large communities of Vietnamese, Ethiopians, Chinese, and others to make them authentic. Great museums. Amazing shopping for food, clothes, and most everything else. Wonderful professional sports teams (if you can suffer their fans). And, of course, incredible historic sites.
If you live in Trenton, and don’t make Philly a regular part of your life, you’re missing a bet.
Restaurante El Mariachi, 762 Roebling Avenue (corner Anderson), Trenton
Taqueria El Mariachi, on N. Olden Ave, has been one of our favorite restaurants since the inception of this website, despite its obvious drawbacks: it is located in a funky retail block, and itself is a dive (one I appreciate and enjoy, but a dive nonetheless). Restaurante El Mariachi is its brand new (as of July of 2010) sibling. It is owned by the same woman. The menu is exactly the same – outstanding home cooked Guatemalan specialties (the food may even currently be slightly better, simply because the new restaurant is getting the full attention of the owner right now). Prices are the same, and for the quality and quantity, are incredibly reasonable ( a dinner/feast for under $10/head, truly, and it’s byob).
The biggest advantages of “Restaurante” are 1) It’s not a dive. It’s actually kind of cute with newly tiled floors, white table cloths, and pleasant murals. 2) It’s located in a quiet, stable residential neighborhood in the heart of Chambersburg, that’s pleasant to visit. 3) It’s bigger, which means you can show up with a group, even on a weekend, and hope to be seated quickly. It’s also conducive to special events, as one or more dining areas can be set aside for a party.
My favorite meals are the Chicken Tostadas and Tacos Al Pastor, which will stuff an extremely hungry man, and cost $6. Piscivores will enjoy the fried fish (a whole porgy, fried crispy), and the seafood soup (available weekends). Vegetarians will love the guacamole tostadas and the pupusas with cheese or cheese and loroco (an edible flower that tastes like broccoli).
It’s the kind of restaurant you can take your mother to, without having your sanity questioned. Indeed, after eating the food, and especially if mom picks up the tab, she’ll be raving about the experience for the rest of her days.
El Chapin Restaurant 802 Lamberton St (enter from Cass St), Trenton (609) 278-1200
(Directions) Open 7 days: 11 AM to 10 PM
El Chapin is a new Guatemalan restaurant at the corner of Cass and Lamberton Streets, within spitting distance of Waterfront Park.
Just to be sure I wasn’t imagining this, I brought my wife for dinner this evening. This is a woman, who when she was 12 years old, demanded roast chicken for her birthday dinner instead of the steak or lobster or roast beef her mother advocated. My wife LOVED this place, so we know it’s a keeper.
If you’re not into the chicken, there’s a pretty complete Guatemalan menu to pick from. There’s tacos and sea food, including Sopa de Mariscos and fried whole fish.
They’re not on the menu, but El Chapin does pupusas as well. My wife and I shared an order this evening, and they are outstanding. Light, grilled in almost no oil, with a tender masa harina shell and gooey queso blanco filling. Yummy.
Prices aren’t the lowest in Trenton, but they’re more than reasonable. The restaurant is clean and pleasant to sit in: nothing fancy, mind you, but much nicer than the average dive.El Chapin stands around the corner from the boarded-up Centre Street Grill, which closed almost a decade ago, a mute reminder that this is still a transitional neighborhood. Manny’s the kind of businessman that is keeping Trenton livable, and if you ask me, is the type of guy who is remaking Trenton into something new and wonderful. We wish him well, and in the meantime, will be patronizing his restaurant frequently, which is really what it’s all about.
Gauterico Deli 526 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton (609) 393-8410
Editor’s Pick for Best Value and Best Pupusa
Guaterico Deli is hard to find, even if you’re looking for it. A friend of my wife’s insisted there was an incredible Guatemalan restaurant on this block, and for months, driving by perhaps 20 times, I couldn’t find it. Then, recently, driving by at peak lunch time, I saw a line out the door. So I parked, and checked it out on foot.
From the name, Guaterico Deli, I had guessed this was a grocery store (which is why I hadn’t “found” it), but in fact it’s a fabulous Guatemalan take-out joint (with some tables if you need to eat in). There’s no formal menu, just a whiteboard with no prices. But don’t worry, this is Trenton. You get huge amount of food for next to no money: “platters”, tacos, tostadas, or pupusas.
The food is all home made, absolutely fresh, and expertly prepared. Compared to other Guatemalan restaurants in town, the cooking uses fat and salt with a lighter touch, making it a place where you can eat often.
For example, check out these Al Pastor tostadas. You can order them individually: two like in the photo below will set you back about $4.00, and it’s more than enough for all but the heartiest eater. Most items (tacos, pupusas, tostadas) are $2.00 each or 3 for $5.95. So you can make up your own combination plate, if you’re so inclined.
The Al Pastor (marinated pork meat) was incredible…. it had a smoky barbeque flavor in addition to the tang of the marinade. The crispy tortilla had a smear of spicy black bean paste under the toppings, and the lettuce and onions had a sprinkling of fresh cilantro. Wow! This is a level of care in preparation that you don’t expect in any take-out joint, much less one this cheap. Personally, I’d probably ask them to hold back a little of the crema, but that’s a matter of taste. The food is really, really good. Service was fast and friendly.
The pupusas are great. The cheese and loroco (an edible flower that tastes something like broccoli) is incredibly flavorful, and comes with a wonderful homemade sauce.
With a convenient location near the corner of Hamilton Ave and South Clinton, Guaterico Deli is a place you may find yourself visiting again and again. I know I have.
Mi Tierra2 Restaurant, Pizzeria, and Bakery 1120 S. Broad Street, Trenton (609)393-0622
Editor’s Pick for Best Cheese Pupusa
Mi Tierra2 is a brand new Guatemalan restaurant located at S. Broad and Liberty Street, on the Trenton/Hamilton border. It is a sister restaurant to Mi Tierra, which has long been honored on these pages. MiTierra2 has some menu innovations that make it stand out on its own.
First, Sopes. These are thick, round, crispy-fried cakes of cornmeal (masa harina) which are used much like a tortilla. Unlike a tortilla, the sopes are thick and airy. Imagine a fresh-made, light and crispy patty, about a quarter inch thick (similar to a thin rice cake). MiTierra sells sopes in a plate of 3, covered with a smear of black-bean paste, your choice of meat (chicken, beef, or al pastor, just like the tacos) and various garnishes such tomatoes, onions, crema, and grated cheese. I found them absolutely fabulous, and a great variation on the standard taco.
Second, Pupusas. MiTierra2 may make the best pupusas in town. They’re lighter than El Mariachi‘s, much less greasy, and come with fabulous home made curtido, a pickled cabbage relish, which tastes like sauerkraut, and a warm salsa. Wonderful.
Third, breakfast. MiTierra2 is open for breakfast with both American and Guatemalan specialites.
MiTierra2 does sell pizza by the pie or the slice. It doesn’t seem to be much to write home about, though if you’re going out with the group and have one among your group that’s not into eating delicious, home-made Guatemalan, it might be an advantage.
MiTierra2 is clean and functional. Nothing fancy, mind you, but a step up from funky. The menus have clear English translations, and at least one of the waitresses spoke English. Prices are extremely reasonable.
San Juan Café, 103 E. State St., Trenton (609) 695-2222
(Directions) Open Mon – Sat 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Another entry into the post-millennium Hispanic-led revival of Trenton is the San Juan Café, a great place for breakfast or lunch right downtown.
Frankly, I have little acquaintance with Puerto Rican food. Obviously, it’s less spicy than Mexican, Guatemalan, or even Cuban. All I know is that what I’ve eaten at SJC is well prepared, fresh, and filling, at a great price. The menu provides a broad choice of food, including multiple chicken, beef, and pork preparations, and a variety of sea food.
Since it opened in early 2009, the Café has attracted a solid clientele… on any given afternoon you may find a good cross-section of City Hall’s senior staff eating lunch there (usually a good sign).
Open 7 days, and one of the few places downtown to get a decent breakfast, and just about the only place open on a Sunday.
Guate Linda Restaurant 1234 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton
When I first visited Guate Linda, almost a year ago, I was slightly disappointed, and decided not to review it for Hidden Trenton. Long time readers on this site will also remember the Ecuadoran restaurant, Paisano, which preceded Guate Linda at this location, and perhaps I wasn’t ready to give it up to the newcomer.
Due to the insistence of several readers, who continually have been promoting Guate Linda in comments, I’ve continued to sample it occasionally, each time recognizing a subtle improvement. Then, a couple of weeks ago, my son and I enjoyed our meal so much, we decided to add it to this role of honor.
Anyway, prices are incredibly reasonable. The food, including the tacos, tostadas, and several of the meat platters is very good. Note, this is a dive. Clean, friendly, but still a dive. English skills of your server are likely to not exist, so if you don’t speak Spanish (like me), be prepared to puzzle out the menu on your own, and order via sign language.
Along with Tacqueria el Mariachi, which is still my favorite Guatemalan restaurant in town, Guate Linda is a place I’ll be eating myself again and again. I can think of no higher praise.
Frankye’s Restaurante, 1500 S. Clinton Avenue, Trenton (609) 777-5337
Frankye’s is a clean, nearly-charming restaurant on the edge of Chambersburg with first rate Guatemalan food. The dining room tables are covered by white table cloths, and the floor sparkles. Yes, there is a large screen TV in the dining room, but the day I was there, the sound was mercifully off.
The food I sampled was excellent, and the menu is extensive with a broad range of both meat and seafood dishes. I loved my Carne Adobada, grilled pork prepared with a dry spice rub. The meat was perfectly cooked – spicy, tender, and still moist. It came with hand made tortillas, a small scoop of black bean paste, rice, and chimol, a smoky-tasting salsa made from tomatoes, onions, and green peppers. My dish originally came with a tiny plastic cup of the chimol. When I finished this, and asked for more, my waitress brought a much larger bowl, which I proceeded to devour.
Prices are very reasonable for the quality of the food and service, though a little more expensive than some of Trenton’s legendary Guatemalan dives (e.g. Taqueria El Mariachi). There’s a full bar, so you don’t need to (or can’t, depending on your perspective) byob.
Frankye’s has a lot of competition in Trenton, so why does it rate inclusion here?
- Food quality is definitely a cut above even the better Guatemalan restaurants in town. By pricing their food slightly higher, Frankye’s can afford to serve better cuts of meat, and this translates to a better meal.
- The dining room is much more pleasant than most. It’s clean, comfortable, and nicely decorated. You can take your mom there without worrying about it.
- The menu is much more extensive than most, with dishes you won’t find elsewhere, including an extensive seafood selection.
Also, apparently, late-night on Saturdays, there’s quite a dance scene.