Over the last decade, Albuquerque has become a hub for Central and South American cuisine.
At various spots around the city these days, you can get dishes like arroz con pollo; mashed, fried plantain patties called patacones; and corn cake sandwiches that are named arepas or pupusas, depending on where you are. Wash them down with a batido, a shake made with fruit, milk and ice, or a potent shot of Cuban coffee.
One of the trendsetters in this movement is Guava Tree Café, married couple Diego Barbosa and Maricarmen Pijem’s restaurant on a quiet street downhill from Central in Nob Hill.
Barbosa and Pijem opened Guava Tree across from UNM in 2010, and the café’s success spurred a move to the larger space in Nob Hill four years later. Today, it operates for lunch and early dinner five days a week. There’s a satellite location at the container complex Tin Can Alley near Alameda and I-25.
The Nob Hill location rises from the corner of Richmond Drive and an alleyway like a weathered bluff of sandstone, all sloping walls and smoothed-over edges. The entrance sits behind a patio and a row of free parking spaces. There also are metered spaces up and down Richmond.
Inside is homey, with wooden vigas looming over brick floors set in a herringbone pattern, and walls painted an appropriately guava shade of green. You order at the counter, take a number and have a seat in one of several small rooms adjacent to the counter.
During a recent weekday lunch hour, a steady flow of customers lined up at the counter, but there was never a long wait thanks to the energetic presence of Barbosa. Barbosa, decked out in a New Mexico United shirt, was a one-man band on this afternoon, ringing up orders, bringing food out to dining room and patio and bagging other orders for takeout.
Barbosa and Pijem grew up in Colombia and Puerto Rico, respectively, and their food fittingly features highlights of South American and Caribbean cuisine.
Appetizers like yuca fries, drawn from the root of the cassava plant, sweet plantains and the savory fried green plantains known as tostones lean toward the starchy and sweet. You can try all three in the Three Amigos Basket ($8.95). Guava Tree’s version of yuca fries were a thicker and slightly sweeter variation of potato fries. The tostones, fried golden brown, stood out for their presentation. A plantain slice sat in the middle, with smaller slices emanating out like petals on a flower. Its nutty flavor paired well with the accompanying garlic aioli.
The sandwich menu features pressed Caribbean sandwiches like the iconic Cubano ($11.25) with ham, pork and Swiss cheese. The Medianoche ($9.25) is essentially a more compact version of the Cubano made on softer, sweeter bread. Its name derives from its popularity as a late-night snack in and around the nightclubs of Havana. Guava Tree’s version had a compelling balance of thin-sliced meat and melted cheese, the pressed bread providing a crisp envelope around the fillings.
As pupusas are to El Salvador and gorditas to Mexico, so is the arepa to Colombia and Venezuela. Guava Tree has several versions, each wrapped in paper and bursting over with ingredients.
The Arepa Machilla ($11.25) is the vegetarian option. Sautéed peppers and onions, the stuff normally heaped over sausage or beef in a sub sandwich, take center stage here, with sliced sautéed mushrooms on board to provide some meatiness. Sweet plantains and queso cheese brought salty and sweet notes, and the whole thing was augmented with a rich, flavorful version of Colombian hogao, a chunky tomato and onion salsa.
Arepa Pabellón ($11.25) presented an intoxicatingly spiced mix of shredded beef with black beans and sweet fried plantains under a crown of queso fresco. The spongy, pliant arepas managed to hold it all together without falling apart.
My friend raved about his Arepa del Patron ($11.25), which pairs roasted pork with creamy avocado wedges under a thick layer of fresco cheese.
Outside of the arepas and sandwiches, Guava Tree offers a version of the Cuban classic ropa vieja called Pelotero that matches shredded beef brisket with beans, sides and a drink for $14.95.
The drinks menu is sparse but interesting, with a deluxe lemonade steeped with cinnamon and cloves, and a house specialty of café con leche made with a double shot of espresso, condensed milk and steamed milk. Batidos, the Latin American milkshake also known as licuados, combines tropical juices with either water or milk and ice for a consistency that’s creamy but not as heavy as an ice-cream based shake. The Mango-vanilla version ($6.25) was a refreshing accompaniment to the food.
The arepas are gluten-free and there are several vegetarian options marked on the menu.
Guava Tree Café’s success has proven that, in a city known for Mexican and New Mexican cuisine, there is room for something different. Among Albuquerque’s Central and South American restaurants, it’s one of the originals and one of the best.