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    Friday, March 01, 2024

    Candy’s Chapina offers a taste of Guatemala in New London

    Candy Simaj, a Guatemalan native, in the customer seating are Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in her new Candy's Chapina Restaurant in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    New London ― From her humble roots as a street vendor making tortillas from scratch on the streets of Santa Cruz del Quiche in Guatemala, Candy Simaj said she’s somewhat amazed to now find herself a restaurant owner in the heart of downtown.

    Simaj held a grand opening for her restaurant, Candy’s Chapina Restaurant at 181 Bank St., in July to satisfy a longtime goal of hers to share a taste of her home country to the masses while improving life for herself and kids.

    Simaj sat for an interview recently during a break from food preparation to talk about her path from bussing tables to business owner. New London’s Grant Coordinator Adrianna Reyes helped to translate for the interview. Two of Simaj’s children, 13-year-old Gustavo and 6-year-old Cathy, who at times fill in as translators for their mother, sat in a nearby booth giggling over lunch during the interview.

    Candy’s Chapina Restaurant adds to the array of Hispanic eateries throughout New London, where more than 33% of residents are Hispanic. Simaj said while searching for a location for the restaurant she immediately recognized New London as the place to set up shop because of the number of Guatemalans who reside here.

    Simaj landed in the United States in 2007 at the age of 21, a single mother in search of something better.

    “When I was a child ,I grew up very poor. I didn’t want my kids to grow up the same way,” Simaj said. “My mom said if you want something, you have to work for it.”

    It was a rough start, Simaj recalls. Her original intention after leaving Guatemala was to head to Seattle to join relatives. Circumstances, which included separation from her husband, led her to Norwich.

    In part because of the language barrier and because her education is less than extensive, Simaj said she had difficult time finding work. She settled on bussing tables at a local restaurant while holding steady to her dreams of opening her own business.

    In addition to working as a street vendor in her youth, Simaj had some experience at a restaurant in Guatemala. She is also adept at creating beautiful indigenous Guatemalan clothing. And not the least of her skills is the fact that she can cook.

    In fact, during the years she was squirreling away money from her regular job, Simaj said she was selling prepared meals on the side to friends and family.

    Some of that money, she said, was later handed over to some people she called kidnappers who were holding her nephew hostage in Mexico. That nephew is now a cook at the restaurant where he is joined by two other native Guatemalans, which adds to the authenticity of the eatery.

    It was by chance that Simaj, a few years back, connected with a fellow Guatemalan from Rhode Island who had tasted her food and suggested she open her own restaurant. At the time, Simaj said she had been toying with the idea of opening a shop to sell her handmade clothing, which traces its roots to the Mayans.

    The idea of a restaurant had intrigued her and she said she eventually came to an agreement for a loan with her Rhode Island friend.

    “I couldn’t believe it.. someone was going to trust in me, to believe in me,” Simaj said.

    While surprised and thrilled, Simaj said she was also not completely shocked because support in the Hispanic community in the U.S. is common. People support one another in hopes of lifting each other up, she said.

    But even combined with the money she had saved herself, she said it wasn’t enough.

    She redoubled her efforts to come up with more money by housekeeping and scrimping and saving what she could. She also received a boost from the city, obtaining a grant from the city’s share of American Rescue Plan Act funds.

    And while the opening of the restaurant could have come sooner - she blames the delay on some unlicensed contractors taking advantage of her - she now occupies a prominent position on Bank Street.

    The menu at Candy’s Chapina is varied but offers many Guatemalan comfort foods such as Chicken pepian, flautas made with homemade tortillas, churrasco grilled steak and beans and ceviche alongside Mexican burritos and tacos and array of breakfast offerings.

    Simaj is not the only game in town when it comes to Guatemalan food. Mi Guatemala recently opened at 453 Montauk Ave.

    g.smith@theday.com

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