Set on the coast of Central America, Belize counts the Caribbean Sea as its border to the east, and beyond a lush, dense jungle, Guatemala and the Mexican state of Yucatan, form its inland borders. Given such geography, it isn't much of a surprise that the dishes of this small country reflect both its neighbors and the confluence of cultures that has become a trademark of the Caribbean islands.
Rustic Mayan foods prepared since ancient times, when the ruins that still dot the interior landscape stood tall and proud; trade-town-style Caribbean dishes infused with elements of Spanish and African culture; and modern Mexican and South American street foods, with distinctly Belizean flare, are reflections of the country's distinct and diverse set of influences.
The staple dish of Belize exemplifies this cacophony: Coconut rice and beans are served with a tangy, black pepper-heavy potato salad; sweet fried plantains; and rich, stewed chicken, beef, pork, or oxtail. Meanwhile, breakfast in Belize might include omelets served alongside fry jack, a puffy bread made of flour, shortening, and baking soda that's deep fried to a golden brown. A plethora of snacks are familiar in name or appearance, but distinct in flavor and cooking style, as with garnache, a crisp corn tortilla topped with beans, onions, and pungent cheese, or half-moon panada pastries, stuffed with fish or beans and deep fried. Though some things are purely Belizean. On every table, at every meal, you will be sure to find a bottle of the Belizean-made Marie Sharp's pepper sauce; a bright orange condiment made of habanero peppers.
As of April, the simple, hearty food of Belize became available here in Metro Phoenix for the very first time.
Luis Lopez and his wife, Elvira, opened Elvira's Belizean Cafe in an unassuming former diner in Chandler.
Luis lived in Belize until he was 17 and has been in the States for almost 36 years now, though he goes back to South America to visit family about three times per year.
"I worked at Macy's for decades, and my wife would cook traditional food for me and my coworkers. So, when I was offered an early retirement, I took it, and opened this restaurant with her." Luis explains. "And Elvira? She's the boss now."
Their space would be easy to pass without a second thought if you weren't looking for it.
The interior retains its diner aesthetic, with laminated tables and booths; the decor updated with a back-lit "Elvira's" sign above the kitchen pass and the Belize flag strung from the ceiling, and not much more. Hip-hop and Spanish hits alternate from the karaoke machine that's setup next to a light-up palm tree at the entrance.
It is bright and cheerful, if not the most design-conscious of spaces. But it doesn't matter, because you don't come to a place like this for the interior design. You come for the food.
Two bottles of Marie Sharp hit the table shortly after I place an order for stewed chicken and rice and a sampling of appetizers, including bean-topped garnaches; both fish and bean stuffed panadas; and salbutes, deep fried rounds of masa topped with chopped cabbage, chicken, and onion.
"Almost all of our staff is from Belize, and everything we serve is homemade and authentic. I even fly my red snapper in from the Caribbean," Luis tells me. "A lot of people don't know what Belizean food is, and I think the best thing is for them to just come and sample different dishes."
A plate of snacks arrives along with a small dish of freshly made vinegar sauce. It's packed with minced onion and small bits of habanero pepper, providing the perfect foil to the heavy fried foods.
The dough of both the panadas and the salbutes are laced with black pepper and have a rich, earthy flavor that compliments their rustic fillings. The garnache, which looks like a simple enough torta-style snack, turns out to be the most flavorful of them all, thanks to spicy, rich beans topped with a flurry of salty, funky cheese.
"You know the secret to those garnache?" Luis asks. "It's the Red Back cheese. You can only find it in Belize, and nothing tastes like it. I'd say it's like a combination of Parmesan and Gruyère."
The stewed chicken with coconut rice and beans arrives. It is pure comfort food.
Simple and homey, there is nothing spicy or exotic about it. The rice and beans are topped with shredded coconut and laced with black pepper. The plantains prove to be a lovely, sweet counterpart to the subtle chicken, and the potato salad is perhaps the most flavorful element on the plate; the potatoes and boiled egg diced and dancing in a creamy, slightly sweet and tangy dressing along with chopped onions and small beans.
"In Belizean cooking, no one flavor should be stronger than the other flavors," Luis says.
The stewed chicken is fall-off-the-bone tender, with a drinkable stewing broth that begs to be poured over the rice. It is a dish that requires a hearty dash of Marie Sharp's, which turns out to be a thick, not-too-sweet-or-sour hot sauce with a bold habanero flavor that brings the chicken to life. Offered in both hot and mild, the hot packs a whole lot more flavor, but without too much heat. That said, a single dash is enough to leave a lingering heat in the back of the throat.
This signature dish tastes to me like the "real" Caribbean food that people on the islands eat on a daily basis. It is reminiscent, somehow, of "boil-up," another common dish eaten throughout the Caribbean that is exactly what it sounds like: a large pot of root vegetables and whatever else is on hand that can be thrown in a pot and boiled up.
Though the food is simple, it is distinctive. "Belizeans known their typical foods, and they will let you know if it isn't right." Luis says, laughing. "There are these old ladies who come in and just start ordering. They don't even look at the menu, or take a breath, they just sit and start to order, because they know we'll have the main dishes."
On the weekends, Luis and Elvira offer specials that are "pure Belizean." This might include oversize Belize-style tamales, which involve masa wrapped around entire chicken breasts and steamed in banana leaves instead of corn husks. It almost always involves a Caribbean fish entree, for which seafood is flown in the same day.
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Elvira's is the kind of place you go every weekend just to see what's cooking. It is a place you want to spend time. That's because Elvira's is real. It is genuine. It is run with the singular goal of offering people a taste of Belizean cuisine here in Phoenix. I can't wait to go back.
Elvira's Belizean Cafe is open Wednesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and is located at 2386 North Alma School Road in Chandler. Menu highlights include the fish and bean panadas, garnache, and coconut rice and bean plates.