Nim Ali Chef Karla Alonzo Now Has a Guatemalan Dining Room in Shaw

Maltiox, which opened last month, serves traditional, hard-to-find dishes.

Maltiox is a concept close to chef Karla Alonzo's heart. Photograph courtesy of Maltiox.

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Maltiox, 1620 Seventh St., NW.

Karla Alonzo has become a minor celebrity in DC’s Guatemalan community. Though she left Guatemala 20 years ago right out of high school—she says she never felt free there because of homophobia—the chef has been embraced by her home country. Nim Ali, her Central American street food booth in Western Market, has appeared on Guatemalan TV and social media, and the Guatemalan embassy chose Alonzo to represent it at this year’s Embassy Chef Challenge. But last year, Alonzo nearly left the restaurant world altogether. 

Maltiox, which Alonzo opened last month, marks a triumphant return from a year of loss. The counter-service eatery in Shaw serves a wide variety of traditional, hard-to-find Guatemalan dishes, from kaq-kik and chojín to pepián and churrasco.

Maltiox means “thank you” in K’iche’, Alonzo’s mother tongue, and one of Guatemala’s 24 indigenous languages. It’s a gesture of gratitude for her siblings, employees, and everyone who helped her with the project.

Last year, Alonzo went through a divorce with Rosario Guzman, her wife and business partner at Nim Ali. It left her struggling to figure out how to keep the restaurant alive— among other things, Alonzo depended on Guzman for her English skills. 

“I always felt very secure when I went into a meeting because I had her next to me,” Alonzo says. “After she left, I was like ‘How am I going to write a letter to the lender? How am I going to communicate with the manager of Western Market?’”

After the separation, Alonzo fell into a depression. Her heart wasn’t in her work anymore, she says, and ownership of Nim Ali briefly became contentious with Guzman. She began planning to close the business and quit her other kitchen job at Jake’s Tavern (where she’d originally opened Nim Ali as a pop-up in 2019) to start a new life doing something else.

Then, last fall, she arrived at Western Market for a shift and encountered a crowd of fellow Guatemalans who’d just eaten at Nim Ali and recognized her. 

“They started telling me ‘your food is amazing, your food lets us travel to Guatemala, remembering memories we used to have when we were young,’” Alonzo says. “That was really sad for me because that day, I was going to tell everyone who works for me that Nim Ali was going to close. I didn’t have the power to say it.”

That was a turning point. Alonzo decided to keep Nim Ali alive, and after one of her employees had a chance conversation with the landlord of a building two doors down from Jake’s Tavern, she got the opportunity to rent the Seventh Street storefront. To gather the funds, she and her siblings forfeited the annual vacation they often take to Florida.

While Nim Ali, a pint-sized market counter decorated with vibrant Mayan patterns, focuses on Guatemalan hot dogs (shukos) and snacks (antojitos), Maltiox has a fuller menu of main dishes.

Alonzo’s pepián, a classic Guatemalan stew, is served with plain tamales and rice. Photograph courtesy of Maltiox.

Those include pepián de gallina, which Alonzo compared to Guatemala’s version of mole: an aromatic, cinnamon-colored sauce made with pumpkin seeds, various chiles, spices, sesame seeds, tomatoes, and tomatillos. It’s served over a slow-cooked chicken leg with a side of rice and plain tamales, perfect for soaking up the sauce. 

Chojin is a special-occasion dish in Alonzo’s hometown of San Lorenzo, and is rarely seen around here. It resembles a classic Central American beef soup—with corn on the cob, carrots, and cabbage swimming in an unctuous broth—but the chunks of beef are grilled and charred before being added to the pot. “It’s a caldo de res, but much better,” Alonzo says.

There are plenty of other typical Guatemalan dishes too: hilachas (shredded beef stew), churrasco (mixed grill), garnachas (tiny ground-beef tostadas), and traditional breakfasts (most featuring black beans, plantains, fresh cheese, and eggs).

Maltiox is well-appointed, with menus on shiny flatscreens, traditional pottery plates and bowls, and a giant mural of a flying quetzal in the upstairs dining room. Alonzo looks around the space proudly. It was the product of a tumultuous time, but for her, “la espera valió la pena”: the wait was worth it. 

Ike Allen
Assistant Editor