Luna de Xelajú – Queens, New York - Gastro Obscura

Queens, New York

Luna de Xelajú

Deliciousness abounds at a Guatemalan restaurant masquerading as a pizzeria. 

Sandwiched between a laundromat and a pharmacy, in the blessed shadow of the church across the street, Luna de Xelajú offers the holy trinity of restaurante Guatamalteco (Guatemalan restaurant), panaderia (bakery), and pizzeria.

The pizza ovens behind the front counter do double duty, baking pizzas as well as Guatemalan sweet breads and biscuits such as the sesame-sprinkled cookie champurrada. The walls are painted the blue of the Guatemalan flag (or, perhaps meant to resemble the indelible azul maya) and tables line a narrow corridor, draped in stunning traditional woven cloth. While New York might have several restaurants offering Central American food, Xelajú stands out for its dedicated, delicious focus on the cuisine of Guatemala.

The name Luna de Xelajú refers to a widely beloved Guatemalan love song, but also to Xelajú, the K’iche’ Maya name for Quetzaltenango, the second-largest city in Guatemala. The restaurant was established in 2003, when the current owners took over a former pizzeria and used their Guatemalan culinary expertise to vastly expand the menu.

The Guatemalan menu offers many traditional dishes, such as salpicon, a shredded beef salad with chopped onions, radishes, and a heap of cilantro, with a bracing citrus tang of freshly squeezed lime juice. There’s pepian, a spicy chicken stew served with Guatemalan tortillas, which are smaller and thicker. The tamales are hefty steamed cakes of masa, stuffed with meat, vegetables, or cheese, and wrapped in banana leaves. Threads of beef melt in the mouth from hilachas (a Spanish word meaning “shreds”), a beef stew simmered on the stove for hours, with tomatoes, tomatillos, and other vegetables.

Breakfast is a feast of champions, with eggs, refried beans, tortillas, plantains, chorizo, and queso fresco. The bakery makes fresh panes dulces such as campechanas and traditional desserts such as the cream-filled puff pastry milhoja. If, for some inexplicable reason, you like the naughty thrill of ordering pizza at a restaurant known for its bountiful Guatemalan offerings, they’ve got you covered there as well. This family-run operation that fills a lapse in a city with every food in the world, leaves one saying delicioso.

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