A dark cobalt blue cursive sign over the storefront reading Churrasco Chapin is what first drew my attention to this small strip mall restaurant in East Hollywood. The name indicates Guatemalan barbecue outside of the Guatemalan Night Market, which is known as the buffet guatemalteco among the vendors. Instead of a traditional American buffet, think a tighter (but equally compelling) array of home cooking and barbecue plates like the churrasco plate, which comes with tender, grilled ranchera steak; refried black beans cooked down to a paste, called frijoles volteados; and a flavorful pale yellow rice, served with a salad and thick disc-like Guatemalan corn tortillas.
While LA’s busy Guatemalan Night Market at Sixth and Bonnie Brae is a visual and literal feast, it can be hard to match the effort and energy inside a restaurant. Thankfully, Churrasco Chapin is like being welcomed into a home to try street food and traditional cooking in a simple but comfortable dining room.
When Monica Ramos opened her Guatemalan barbecue and home cooking restaurant in an East Hollywood strip mall in June 2020, weeks before indoor dining was canceled again due to rising COVID-19 cases, she was fulfilling a lifelong wish. “I had many dreams back in Guatemala,” says Ramos. “I wanted to someday have my own apartment, come to the United States, and open a restaurant to show off our culture.”
Ramos had previously sold chiles rellenos, chuchitos, and atoles out of her home in Montrose, but had limited opportunities to indulge her independent, entrepreneurial spirit while in her marriage, which ended after 10 years in 2006. Following the divorce, Ramos spent years cleaning houses and offices, and for the last six years has owned her own company, Extreme Services, servicing residential and business spaces — all while carefully putting money aside for a restaurant.
“The owner of this place reached out, knowing I wanted to have my own restaurant, and the deal was too good to pass up,” says Ramos. The tiny but mighty Churrasco Chapin is a tribute not just to Ramos’ hard work and entrepreneurial spirit, but specifically to the neighborhood barbecue stands she grew up with in Guatemala.
“It was really hard at first, we had just opened and then there was only delivery, and some days we’d only earn $40, $60, or $80 for a full day’s service,” said Ramos of opening during the middle of the pandemic. Now that she can fill her half-dozen tables, with mostly Guatemalans that visit from the dense Central-American community living around Santa Monica and Western north of Koreatown in a neighborhood called Melrose Hill. She’ll even serve Guatemalans who venture in from far away Lancaster and Long Beach who are spreading the word about the best shucos (Guatemalan hot dogs) in town.
“Lots of people are selling shucos now, but this one beats them all,” says a customer listening in. Ramos says it all starts with her bread, a pan chuco made by a local baker. The large rectangular bun is toasted, then covered with guacamol (avocado spread), topped with grilled, a sliced wiener, pickled cabbage, and onions. It’s then well dressed with mayo, ketchup, and mustard, each bite popping with sweet and salty notes.
Another stand-out street food item on Ramos’s menu are the dobladas San Carlos, named after the Guatemalan chain that’s been around since 1951; think Guatemala’s take on a crunchy taco. Ramos’s dobladas San Carlos come filled with shredded beef and cabbage in a crunchy corn tortilla, making it an ideal snack before the mains.
In addition to the usual menu, a large blue banner shows photographs of more dishes you can order here. They’re all fantastic, like the traditional pepian (pumpkin seed stew); hilachas (shredded beef and potatoes in tomato salsa); and carne guisada, a rich, thickened beef stew, made with beef juices, tomatoes, and a half-dozen spices. Though they’re sometimes available as a daily special, it’s worth calling ahead to order the frijoles blancos, white beans cooked in a recado (stew) of tomatoes, spices, and chile guaque, then topped with a buttery, slow-cooked pork spine.
A bowl of sweet mole de plátanos, made with fried plantains in chocolate, chile pasa, cinnamon, and pumpkin and sesame seeds is a sweet finish to an evening of stellar Guatemalan street food and hearty traditional dishes. Ramos serves Guatemalan breakfast plates too, as well as savory soups and tamales. “Our [Guatemalan] customers love my tamales,” says Ramos, which is saying a lot because Guatemalans have one of Latin America’s most varied tamal cultures, and nearly everyone’s family makes exceptional tamales. For a small restaurant, Ramos covers — and excels at — a broad range of Guatemalan gastronomy. That’s no small feat in the best of times, and remarkable considering the Ramos opened during one of the most difficult moments for restaurants the world has ever seen. ”It still a struggle,” she says, “but this is what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Churrasco Chapin is open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 820 North Western Avenue, East Hollywood. (323) 498-0802