When Maria Reyes first opened El Salvadoreño in 1995, there were no other Salvadorian restaurants in San Diego. Located in Grant Hill (2845 Imperial Ave.), the roomy, high-ceilinged eatery is the kind of place you visit for sturdy, no-frills fare. Maria worked at her mother's sidewalk food stand as a young girl, preparing pupusas and pasteles in San Miguel. So it's no wonder that the grub here is honest and authentic—not dressed-up or dumbed-down.
From the outside, El Salvadoreño's barred windows and closed door make it appear 'round-the-clock closed. But the inside is much more inviting, thanks to the yellow gleam of its wooden ceiling, tables and chairs. Knickknacks fill the shelves, and paintings decorate the walls, making the hangout almost feel like Grandma's place.
The food extends the eating-at-home illusion—it's robust, straightforward and fresh. Crack open the menu and you'll find pictures of each plate above a simple description: plantain chips with grilled pork chops, fried red Snapper, grilled steak and onions. If you arrive hungry, as you should, choosing just one dish among the many options will be a brow-furrowing challenge.
Piled high with pupusas, tamales, enchiladas and plantains, the made-for-two sampler is a nice way to explore a large chunk of El Salvadoreño's menu. And, at $17.99, it's also reasonably priced. I ended up ordering the chicken enchilada plate and a cheese-and-zucchini pupusa.
Unlike its Mexican counterpart, the Salvadorian enchilada features its ingredients atop a thick, fried tortilla. A rich layering of refried beans, pulled chicken, slivered cabbage, tomato and crumbled cotija cheese completed the meal. Both texture- and flavor-wise, it was a well-balanced dish. The crunchy shredded cabbage and fried tortilla offset the softness of the other ingredients, like the juicy chicken. Hot-pink ribbons of pickled onion added zesty tartness to the enchiladas, which arrived three to a plate.
The pupusas, though, were the definite crowd favorite. Chewy and oozing oil, the thick, pancake-like rounds of corn tortilla are stuffed with hot, melted cheese and everything from mushrooms to chicken to jalapeños. A bowl of curtido—Salvadorian-style sauerkraut made with marinated cabbage and oregano—accompanied the griddle cakes.
The curtido delivered just enough zing and crunch to the savory patties. Creamy, stretchy cheese and sautéed zucchini were the star ingredients of my pupusa. For those who like it hot, make sure to spoon salsa roja over the patties. I loved how certain parts of the corn cake were charred, creating a satisfying contrast of textures. You can also order rice-flour pupusas, if those more strike your fancy.
Breakfast is served all day at El Salvadoreño. A ground-beef-stuffed plantain sprinkled with cotija cheese is on my must-try list for next time. It's too bad that I didn't have room for dessert, because the menu flaunts several enticing options. Fried yucca pies, cheese-flavored Salvadorian pound cake and cream of corn are tempting alternatives to the standard chocolate-chip cookies and ice cream.
After finishing the entire pupusa and most of the enchiladas, I just wanted to take a nap. Now, if I'd really been at Grandma's house, I could have definitely made that happen.