Nearly five years after opening C.lo Cafe, an American café, Claudia Lopez took a leap. She transformed the space into Claudia’s, a full-service Guatemalan restaurant in East Williamsburg. Claudia and her husband wanted to evolve the café, but needed a partner. It wasn’t until she met restaurateur Rafaello VanCouten, whom her husband knew from years working in the restaurant business (he is an expert in HVAC systems and did all the construction on Claudia’s), that they put the plan in motion.
Lopez moved to the U.S. when she was 14, attending high school three blocks away from her current restaurant. Before opening C.Lo, which has a second location in Ridgewood, Lopez operated a beauty salon and spent years working at Le Pain Quotidien in operations, opening multiple locations.
Claudia’s offers Guatemalan breakfast, lunch and dinner, and aims to teach people about the cuisine. Regulars can still grab a coffee or horchata to go. The menu doesn’t translate dishes, preferring people to ask questions about chirmol, a tomato herb salsa whose name translates to “running nose,” an effect the spice might elicit. You can also enjoy dobladas and tortillas montadas.
VanCouten, who grew up in Guyana and moved to the U.S. when he was 10, first went to Guatemala with his other business, the Eleva coffee company, and fell in love. He hadn’t tried much Guatemalan food and was hooked, “It’s so satisfying,” he said, “and you don’t get tired of it.”
The city Antigua, which was the capital of Guatemala for 200 years, provided inspiration. The mural depicts an iconic church arch that frames a volcano. An Antigua restaurant, Los Tres Tiempos, inspired some of the decor, which includes embroidered chairs and booths made from corte and huipil fabric (traditional skirts and blouses) that Claudia’s mom brought from Guatemala. All of the construction took place after hours, as the team didn’t close for a day during the transition to Claudia’s. On most streets in Antigua, a nearby (active) volcano is visible. “You’re right under the mountains, and you see the best sunsets,” Lopez reminisces. VanCouten has been threatening to move there since he visited.
One aspect of Guatemalan eating that really comes through at Claudia’s is Los Tres Tiempos. As Lopez explains, “you eat three times a day. You have your breakfast, your lunch and then you have your dinner.” Each meal is hearty and snacking isn’t necessary. Desayuno Chapin, the tipico breakfast is eggs, fresh cheese, black beans and fried plantains, served with handmade tortillas, small, round and thick. For lunch and dinner, Claudia’s offers several of the country’s flagship stews: pepian, made with crushed pumpkin seeds, jocon, an herby chicken stew, and hilachas, with brisket. They’re the perfect cold weather lunches.
In Guatemala, making tamales takes all day. There’s a profound appreciation for those who prepare them for special occasions and sell them out of homes and stores demarcated with a red light bulb or cloth. Different colored ties mark the different fillings (they use the same system here) and each one has an olive. Lopez’s mom was a tamale-maker when she lived in her native Guatemala. Now, she lives blocks from her daughter’s restaurant and still makes the banana bread, though she’s outsourced masa duty.
Mario Lopez, Claudia’s brother, is the restaurant’s executive chef and he takes great pride in his masa. “Our mom, when we were younger, she worked like a horse, like how everyone in Guatemala works,” he says. “We wouldn’t see her during the week but we looked forward to every Sunday when she would cook for us.” The Lopez matriarch sold food at schools and later cooked at a hotel restaurant in Guatemala City. As we speak at Claudia’s, her mother stops by, as does her niece, adding to the familial atmosphere. VanCouten was impressed by the warm atmosphere he found in Guatemala, and wanted to put that openness and warmth in the space.
Now that the transformation is complete, Lopez says, “people keep coming back.” They opened as Claudia’s in October, and her brother consistently reports empty plates. The nighttime is heating up, too, with a cocktail menu built on Guatemalan rums like Zacapa and Coconut Cartel as well as Ilegal Mezcal, a nod to Antigua bar Cafe No Sé. They’ve even managed to import Gallo, the country’s most popular beer (it’s sold under the name Famosa in the US.)
Spending time at Claudia’s was special. I spent a year living in Guatemala working at a nonprofit and recently went back for a visit. I ate hundreds of desayunos chapines and never tired of them. As we spoke, Lopez and VanCouten offered reasons as to why Guatemalan food is not more popular today–there are few restaurants, they know the country seems dangerous and 8 out of 10 people live below the poverty line. But at Claudia’s they’ve built an explicitly Guatemalan space to feed people, who might just learn something over the course of a meal.