In the 1980s, several hundred thousand Salvadorans fled their civil war ravaged nation (courtesy, many would say of America’s attempting to turn El Salvador into the Western hemisphere’s version of Vietnam). Many migrated to large metropolitan areas in the United States where their culture has quietly flourished. Those immigrants introduced and hooked Californians on their national snack, a modest street food called the pupusa. If you’ve never had a pupusa, there’s a chance you may have learned of them on the Food Network’s Diners Drive-Ins and Dives program. In 2009, host Guy Fieri visited Santa Fe’s Tune-Up Cafe where the garrulous wayfarer was first introduced to pupusas himself.
A pupusa is a thick, hand-made corn tortilla stuffed with sundry ingredients, the only limitation as to what each is engorged with being the imagination of the chef preparing them. Unlike New Mexican tortillas, Salvadorian tortillas are made with no baking powder and very little (if any) salt. They’re roughly four-inches in diameter and made with a maize masa. In recent decades, pupuserias have sprung up in many large American cities. Generally small and family run, pupuserias have been developing a very popular following among college students and adventurous diners.
Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreño launched in November, 2005 and within months inspired a “Where’s Waldo” type search for a rumored Salvadoran restaurant, the Duke City’s first. That search was triggered by a reader of the Albuquerque Tribune’s “Food City” column who was desperately craving pupusas. Fortunately for other pupusa fanatics, another reader let everyone know just where the restaurant is. It’s a homey hole-in-the-wall on the corner of Goff and Bridge. In 2010, a second instantiation of the restaurant opened on the corner of San Mateo and Gibson, directly west of the “Chevy on a Stick.”
Owned by retired military veteran Eddie Aguilar but run by his sister Antonia Miles and their huggable mother Ruth Aguilar, Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreño is a treasure which looks as it belongs somewhere in inner city Los Angeles. As terrific as it is and after experiencing absolutely addicting flavor explosions during each visit, our return visits have been all too infrequent. Antonia is the visible face of the restaurant while Ruth operates the kitchen with the skill of someone who loves to cook. To Ruth there is no greater compliment than the smile of her customers’ as they enjoy her cooking.
Several colorful towels adorn the restaurant’s walls. One towel depicts the Salvadoran and United States flags with the words “Estamos Unidos” (we’re united). Other colorful towels portray Salvadoran women preparing pupusas in an open air market at which children are frolicking. There are at least two maps of El Salvador on the wall as well as two posters of the country’s currency, the Colon. Perhaps reflective of El Salvador’s attitude toward family, most of the restaurant’s seating seems tailored for groups of four or more. When all tables are occupied, you can still sit on a counter above which a television seems perpetually tuned to a soccer game.
The menu features nine different pupusas, all served with curtido (a pickled-cabbage relish with a taste more than vaguely reminiscent of something between coleslaw and sauerkraut) and a water-thin tomato salsa. The curtido is made with beets, cabbage, carrots, dried hot pepper and Mexican oregano (a natural flavor ameliorant far superior to its ground American counterpart). You can eat the curtido as you would any coleslaw or you can pile it on your pupusa as Salvadorans tend to do. Either way, it’s an exciting taste experience.
The pupusas are as wonderful as those I first experienced in San Jose, California several years ago. It isn”t difficult to imagine a Salvadoran mother lovingly crafting the pupusa revuelta (mixed), crafted with cheese (a soft Salvadoran cheese called quesillo), chicharrones and refried beans…and indeed, we have been so effusive in our praise of this tortilla treasure that Ruth has come out of the kitchen during each of our visits to accept our compliments in person. Equally praise-worthy is the pupusa de queso con loroco. Loroco is a vine flower bud that grows throughout Central America.
You could easily make a meal out of several pupusas and would be more than satisfied, however, the menu is replete with intriguing choices–starting with the beverage (bebidas) selections. Aguas Frescas include horchata (the refreshing rice and cinnamon drink), piña (pineapple), melon and tamarindo (a slightly sour fruity drink). For health-conscious diners, several natural juvos (juices) flavored with carrot (zanahoria) and other fruit or vegetable ingredients can also be found. The zanahoria y naranja (orange) beverage is a refreshing and delicious surprise chock full of vitamins.
The menu also includes entree choices sure to please the discerning diner. As you contemplate the menu, you’ll enjoy the complementary chips and salsa. Both are more in the style of Mexican salsa and chips than they are New Mexican which means a pureed and piquant sauce and thick, unsalted chips. Carnivores are sure to enjoy the beef steak encebollado, a thin steak in a light brown gravy flavored with roasted onion and peppers. The cut of meat is typically cut, but the flavors work very well together. If fish is more what you wish, the mojarra frita, a lightly battered fried fish is a very good choice (just watch out for those sharp bones).
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once posited that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Let me posit that New Mexico and El Salvador are a state and country similarly separated. Case in point are tamales and torta de huevo, two dishes common to both New Mexico and El Salvador yet two dishes as different as night and day while retaining some unmistakable similarities.
Salvadoran tamales are filled with shredded chicken and wrapped in a banana leaf (hoja de platano). Texturally, the masa is more fine than the masa used in New Mexican or Mexican tamales. In fact, the masa is prepared first then wrapped around the shredded chicken and steamed in the banana leaves. The leaves impart a distinct herbaceous quality to the chicken and seal in the moistness you want in a chicken dish. In New Mexico torta de huevo is a traditional Lenten dish made from egg whites beaten to a frothy consistency then fried into circular “fritters.” In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreno a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its tamal de pollo as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.” Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.
Salvadoran torta de huevo is more akin to an unfolded omelet. Similar to an omelet, it is stuffed with various ingredients–primarily chopped onions and tomato at Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreno. Unlike American omelets which tend to be light and fluffy, Salvadoran torta de huevo has a fried egg texture and appearance. Bite into it and you’ll notice the differences immediately. This entree is served with refried beans, sour cream and quesillo, the unique Salvadoran cheese. The refried beans are actually better than just about any I can remember having at any Mexican or New Mexican restaurant.
In the nearly four years (2007-2011) which elapsed between our visits to this fabulous Salvadoran treasure, several things had changed–all for the better. The complementary salsa and chips are new as are “tortas ricas.” Tortas are popular Mexican sandwiches typically made from an oblong six-to-eight inch soft Mexican bread rolls called bolillos). The restaurant offers three different tortas: the Cubana, the carne asada (literally roasted meat) and the jamon (a dry-cured ham). Our waiter heartily recommended the Cubano and for good reason.
The Cubano, loosely patterned after the famous sandwich of the same name, is fantastic–a large bolillo stuffed with ham, cheese, hot dog wieners, lettuce and tomato. The bolillo is smeared with both mayonnaise and guacamole, giving it a very rich taste. The torta is as thick as a triple-beef hamburger; you have to open your mouth wide to bite into it, but when you do, you’ll be surprised at the deliciousness of the ingredient combination. The ham and hot dog duo, in particular, are quite good, literally two pork products in concert with one another. It’s big enough for two to share.
We were so pleased with our introductory meals that even though bursting from the large quantities of food we had just consumed, we were eager to see if the chef’s kitchen mastery extended to desserts. Though not on the menu, Ruth whipped up some warm natillas richly flavored with cinnamon and raisins. Somewhat more liquefied than natillas you might find at a New Mexican restaurant, Ruth’s version is simply wonderful, among the best we’ve had anywhere.
Albuquerque has become a rich melting pot in which the world’s cultures integrate easily and contribute to the fabric of the city. One of the best ways to begin to appreciate a culture is through its cuisine. Our visits to Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreño have certainly increased our appreciation for the great people and culture of our Central American neighbor.
Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreño
1701 Bridge, S.W.
LATEST VISIT: 9 January 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Pupusa Revuelta; Pupusa De Queso Con Loroco; Pupusa De Salami; Pupusa De Camaron; Platano Frito Con Crema Y Frijoles; Beef Steak Encebollado; Torta de Huevo Salvadoreno, Torta Cubana, Torta de Carne Asada