El Salvador Pupuseria & Restaurant is loud and messy on a Sunday night. Each tabletop bears its very own, perfectly unique constellation of chip crumbs. A server towels a freshly spritzed surface with focused, half-circle motions. Families share the blue-walled, one-room space with young couples, women in yoga attire and a gaggle of teens.
The restaurant (3824 University Ave. in City Heights) has been around for almost 10 years, the server tells me, placing a fat stack of menus on the table. Behind me, two college students get their food mistakenly served in to-go boxes, presented as a wobbly Styrofoam tower.
Hidden in a colorless shopping center, El Salvador Pupuseria & Restaurant is easy to miss if you're driving past. It must set the regulars at ease knowing that the eatery, though reasonably busy on a weekend evening, will always have a few tables empty at anytime throughout the day.
As its name implies, the restaurant specializes in pupusas. Starchy, griddled and pancake-flat, pupusas are made with rice flour or cornmeal and stuffed with a slew of ingredients—from broccoli to pork to cheese. They sell for $1.99 a pop, which is exceptionally reasonable considering how filling they are.
Pupusas are best eaten fresh, when the cheese is hot and bubbly and the doughy exterior crispy in some parts. El Salvador's potato version is superbly rich—a creamy spud filling oozes out with each messy bite. The restaurant's mixed meat and broccoli and cheese versions are sturdy, too. I learned from my first encounter with Salvadoran food that you're supposed to top the savory cakes with spoonfuls of curtido, a cabbage salad. The slaw, which also features carrots and oregano, is refreshing and crunchy—a fine complement to the salty pupusas. A watery salsa roja arrives in a small wooden bowl and is another important flavor enhancer.
Pupusas are prepared by balling a chunk of dough and then making an indentation in it. After the indentation is filled with the ingredients of choice, the dough is flattened into a disk about a quarter-inch thick. The pupusa then gets slapped onto an oiled skillet, where it sits until each side is toasted brown.
El Salvador Pupuseria also serves up fried plantains with beans and sour cream. The combination of sticky-sweet fruit with salty beans and tart cream is surprisingly delicious. The refried beans are not goopy; they're satisfyingly firm with the added texture of a few whole beans. The consistency makes it perfectly spreadable.
Unlike the pupusas and the plantains, the chicken tamales dished out are unremarkable. My banana-leaf-wrapped tamale was flavorless and barely warm—I pushed it aside and focused instead on the fried yucca and plate-sized pupusa that create the combination plate.
But then again, if a place calls itself a pupuseria, why eat anything else? Revisiting the menu a few days later, I discovered that the restaurant offers more than a dozen different pupusas, including a squash-filled version that I somehow overlooked. So, now you know: Go for the pupusas.