Here is the Drop-In Dining report from today's GO section. Drop-In Dining is a continuing series where a TNT staffer drops in unannounced and eats on the TNT's dime, then writes up a report about the experience. Have a restaurant you would like us to check out? Email email@example.com.
El Pulgarcito Salvadoran Restaurant
Where: 12134 Pacific Highway S.W., Lakewood; 253-582-5173 (Additional location at 4509 Lacey Blvd. S.E., Lacey; 360-491-4068)
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Sundays
Price range: $ (under $14)
By Sue Kidd
The Scene: Small, clean, cute and clearly a Salvadoran restaurant – the maps and photos of El Salvador plastered on the walls are a giveaway. A few booths for sit-down service, or take-out at the counter. Not a quiet restaurant – expect to hear Telemundo on the television. We watched a Spanish-speaking version of Judge Judy, "Caso Cerrado," on our visit.
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Type of food: Salvadoran cuisine. The bulk of the menu seems to be traditional Salvadoran dishes of stewed and slow-cooked meats paired with some kind of starch – a Salvadoran equivalent of Midwestern meat and potatoes heartland eats. Salvadoran food is flavorful but not spicy. But a tongue-tingling salsa is provided for heat seekers.
Menu highlights: Naturally, pupusas ($1.95 each) are a staple of the menu, as they are a staple in El Salvador home kitchens. Pupusas are a very traditional dish that can be traced to ancient villages in what is now El Salvador. They are thick discs, sort of beefed up corn pancakes, stuffed with all kinds of meats or cheeses and served hot off a griddle. El Pulgarcito makes six kinds of pupusas: chicharron (pork), queso (cheese), loroco con queso (cheese and veggies), revuelta (pork, cheese and beans), calabazita (zucchini and cheese) and espinaca (spinach and cheese).
Looking beyond these savory and inexpensive little delights, there are a dozen Salvadoran entrees – among them two interesting sounding dishes that we did not sample: sopa de res ($9.99), a combination of beef ribs, yuca, cabbage, zucchini and tortillas; and mojarrita frita ($10.95), a whole fried tilapia fish with accompaniments.
The menu also includes Mexican-style burritos ($6.50-$8.95) and Mexican entrees, such as chicken carnitas ($9.50), pollo ranchero ($9.50) and steak fajitas ($9.95). But at a Salvadoran restaurant, why order a Mexican entrée? Stick to the left side of the menu where the Salvadoran specialties are listed.
People in the kitchen: Owners are Celina Ramos and Elio Flores. The restaurant opened in 2006. There is another location in Lacey.
Dishes sampled: Pupusas! Need we say more? These tasty Salvadoran appetizers easily can become habit-forming. The chicharron pupusa ($1.95) was stuffed with savory pork and the calabazita pupusa was steaming hot and gooey with cheese (a little light on the zucchini). Served with a side of Salvadoran cabbage – curtido, a puckery Salvadoran salad that tastes a bit like a very crunchy, fresh sauerkraut – two pupusas can make a very cheap and delicious meal. Tip: If also ordering one of the Salvadoran meat entrees, save some of the curtido cabbage to fold into a handmade tortilla with some of the meat.
Bistek Encebollado ($9.95) was a hearty slab of marinated steak covered with grilled onions and peppers and a side of fragrant, yet mild, rice and portion of black beans. Definitely ask for the handmade corn tortillas to accompany the entrée. The tortillas were thick and chewy. So was the meat, so cut the pieces small before assembling into a Salvadoran-style taco.
Pollo Guisado ($9.50) is a slow-cooked chicken-style pot roast, also served with rice, salad and the handmade tortillas. The chicken in this dish was much more pliable than the bistek, and the chicken reheated nicely as a leftover lunch.
Yuca al Vapor ($6.50) is a bargain of a meal and enough to feed two easily. Yuca root – sort of like a really starchy white sweet potato – is served steamed (or fried, just order it "frita") and covered with a side of the cabbage curtido and drizzled with a tomato-based sauce. On the side, chunks of fried pork (watch out for a bit of chewy gristle). Again, these things go well tucked inside handmade tortillas.
Service: Our server answered 20 or so of our questions with patience. She steered us to menu items that were Salvadoran specialties and provided reference for ingredients with which we were unfamiliar. We appreciated the navigation.
Most unexpected moment: Our server asked if we wanted handmade tortillas with our meal (as opposed to prepackaged). We look at our server, stunned. Given a choice … is there really a choice? We went with the handmade, naturally. They were thick, fragrant and deliciously hearty hand-pressed corn tortillas. These are more dense and toothsome than typical thin tortillas at Mexican restaurants. In short, a delicious Salvadoran treat. Lesson: If your server asks if you want them made "a mano," say "