El Salvador Pupuseria y Restaurante 3824 University Ave.City Heights619-282-3018
I met my first pupusa a few years ago, while in San Francisco for a friend's bachelorette weekend. We'd stopped at a street fair and while most of the other girls were shopping, I made a beeline for the food, queuing up for the stand with the longest line without really knowing what I was waiting for. The banner said “Pupusas Salvadorenas,” and the air smelled of melted cheese, which was enough to entice me.
I peered around people's heads and saw a griddle covered with round discs of puffy dough crisping on the heat. I asked a friendly guy in front of me what to order. He recommended I start with a plain cheese pupusa and led me to the garnish table, where we topped our snacks with a carrot and cabbage slaw called curtido, scooped from a large bucket, and a few squirts of what looked like a cooked tomato hot sauce, which my new friend assured me wasn't too spicy. We moved over to the side of the booth to watch the ladies within make fresh pupusas, hollowing rounds of masa dough and placing some filling inside before folding over the dough and pressing it into a Frisbee shape between their palms.
My pupusa guide explained that we were eating the favorite snack of El Salvador, a street-food star that hit all the right notes: cheap, filling and flavorful. I liked mine at first bite—the thick tortilla was, at turns, both crunchy and chewy, each mouthful pulling strings of milky white cheese. The toasty corn flavor of the pupusa and the richness of the cheese filling coupled awesomely with the sharpness of the vinegary vegetable relish and the midly spicy red sauce. He let me try some his pupusa revueltas stuffed with pork, beans and cheese, but I still preferred the simplicity of my cheese variety.
I've since found my way to El Salvador Pupuseria y Restaurante, on University Avenue just a few blocks east of Super Cocina, another cherished restaurant that I probably would eat at more often if El Salvador wasn't also in the area.
Half the menu at this very informal restaurant is standard taco-stand fare, but the main draw are the specialties.
I always order pupusas, of course, which you can hear being made in the back kitchen as you wait—the rhythmic slap of dough being flattened and tossed between two hands. I still like the cheese pupusas best, although the pupusas de calabaza filled with chopped zucchini and cheese and the ones stuffed with bits of chicharones are both good. A little bowl of the curtido, sort of a Salvadoran sauerkraut, comes alongside, but I like getting extra from the large container that makes its way around the tables of the restaurant. Each pupusa costs less than $2.
My next favorite dish is the fried yucca, the perfect starch, all crunchy and salty and tossed with pieces of fried pork capped with crispy skin. The last time I ate this, my friend and I roshambo'ed to see who got the final piece of pork. Salvadoran tamales are a relatively new discovery. They're wrapped in wide banana leaves, instead of corn husks, and the texture of the masa is much more tender and wetter than Mexican tamales. I've tried both the pork and chicken tamales and like them equally, though they're best eaten very soon after you peel back the banana leaves to expose the steaming, melt-in-your-mouth dough. Once cooled, they loose some of their appeal, but I like the almost herby flavor the leaf wrappers bring to the dish.
The only thing I've tried at El Salvador that doesn't live up to appearances is the empanada de leche—burnished fried donuts made from plantain dough and filled with custard. They look amazing, but though I like their crispy exterior, the insides are a little too mushy and pastey for my taste. If I'm up for something sweet, I'd rather have a glass of homemade Jamaica and a plate of fried plantains, served with refried black beans and thick, tangy crema.
That first pupusa in San Francisco was the gateway to a curiosity about this kind of cuisine that I've fed as often as I could in the time since—I'm grateful for the kindness of that stranger who first opened the door.