I'm cautious to use the phrase "hole-in-the-wall" to describe restaurants. We're not rodents, we're human beings! What some call a hole is someone else's whole livelihood, a place people show up to and take care of every day. I suspect some critic coined the category to avoid taking these restaurants too seriously, to avoid seeing them as veritable temples of culinary arts, even if they are consecrated to diners in the working and immigrant classes.
Our city's full of walls, physical and metaphorical. Lucky for us foodies, those walls are full of "holes" where we can have a pure and direct experience with food. Some of the best cuisine is found far outside the downtown core, and by all indications, it's only getting stronger.
One representative of this rising culture is the unpretentious yet authentic Chapin y Mex restaurant (6417 Airport Rd Ste. 100; 467-8289), a well-kept secret that's been open since 2017, but which only recently came onto my radar after a reader recommendation. "Authentic" is the restaurant's own term to describe its Mexican and Guatemalan offerings, and while I often abhor that word in most contexts, it's appropriate here—it's not an empty catchphrase to attract tourists (which, frankly, seems to be the restaurant's last concern) but a matter of national identity and pride, of representing home and providing familiar, quality food to Santa Feans of Mexican and Guatemalan heritage.
The windows of Chapin y Mex feature blown-up decals of their dishes, which literally caused my mouth to water before I could get in the door. I can respect a restaurant that uses photos of its own food to create atmosphere—functional, colorful, maybe a little cocky? I'll take almost anything besides a faux regional facade at this point.
The interior walls are completely decked out in bright murals depicting landmarks from across Guatemala and Mexico, wildlife and a prominent Pancho Villa astride a horse. I was greeted in Spanish and offered my choice of seating. This being a bilingual city, I appreciated the expectation of communication in Spanish, and my server was generously patient with my errors and spoke slowly enough for me to understand.
My friend and I were brought chips and salsa immediately, and while I couldn't sample the chips due to a recent awful experience with my wisdom teeth, I used them to scoop a simple salsa verde into my mouth. The tomato-less salsa celebrates chile with a lingering heat that began to creep into the corners of my tongue, setting the stage for pops of roasted pepper.
The Chapin y Mex menu is split into several sections: standard Mexican breakfasts with things like chilaquiles de pollo ($9.75), huevos rancheros ($8.95) and breakfast burritos with your choice of bacon, ham, chorizo and sausage ($4.95). There's at least nine different taco plates with four tacos each ($8.50-$11.99), a similarly large number of tortas, a rich seafood section and two sections each for main courses from Mexico and Guatemala.
My friend ordered a plate of Guatemalan staples: carne asada arrachera, fried bananas and mashed black beans topped with fresh, cotija-style cheese ($10.75). I settled for the chile rellenos with shrimp and sides of rice and refried beans ($12.75). My friend's plate was simple, allowing each ingredient its own moment to shine with quality and rich flavor. The steak was well-marinated but a little tough, which is one of my only criticisms of the meal, but ultimately not unexpected from a thin flank steak. The bananas, on the other hand, were crispy on the outside, sweet and almost bready and covered in a light cream sauce. She was surprised to find the beans were her favorite part; at Chapin y Mex, they're not a side dish, they're foundational to the plate and deep in garlic flavors which turn into something even more satisfying with the added mild cheese.
My own chile rellenos were stuffed to the brim with shrimp. The peppers themselves weren't particularly spicy, but were covered in a thin jalapeño-onion-tomato sauce that added heat. Where my friend's plate was composed of simple moments, mine was more of a single symphonic blast, a tide of flavors that push ahead without stopping to figure out what's going on. The beans and rice did function more as sides on my plate. The rice was buttery, soft and specked with bright veggies, providing a comfortable return to solid ground after getting caught up in the tide of the chile relleno.
The biggest tragedy of the meal was that neither I nor my companion had room for dessert. We were hoping to try the choco flan ($4.95) or the Guatemalan-style tres leches cake ($5.95), but we were completely stuffed—not good for dessert sales, but hugely good for my soul.