Pupusas are neither tacos, gorditas nor quesadillas, but think of them as the Salvadoran cousin to all three.
Pupusas are thick, fragrant corn discs that can be stuffed with cheese, slow-simmered pork, a smear of beans, shredded zucchini or even spinach. They're griddle-warmed and served piping hot with a side of curtido, a Salvadoran pickled cabbage-carrot salad goosed with fresh oregano.
Dig your fork into the middle of a queso pupusa and a gooey ooze of cheese spills out of the center. As one of my dining partners noted during a visit to a pupuseria, "What's not to love about hot wads of dough stuffed with melted cheese?" I concur. They're devilishly good.
At less than $2 per pupusa, they make for a filling and inexpensive meal. At pupuserias, the restaurants that specialize in the stuffed corn discs, pupusas are meant as an appetizer for brimming bowls of soup, grilled meats, fried yuca and stews - all specialties of Salvadoran cuisine.
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These Salvadoran dishes can be found at pupuserias El Pulgarcito in Lakewood and Mi Chalateca in Federal Way - small restaurants big on Salvadoran flavor.
Here's what they have to offer:
You might not be able to see the pupusas being made at Mi Chalateca, but you can hear the pat-pat-pat as the kitchen workers stuff and hand form the discs. The fragrant waft of griddle-warmed corn dough is the early alert system for the arrival of pupusas ($1.75 each, about 10 choices for fillings).
The interior fillings are sparse but flavor drenched. The pork is finely shredded, punched with chile, and thinly layered. The beans are thick and meaty, thumped with a garlic bite. The queso is gooey and unctuous, my favorite of all the pupusas sampled. Curtido, the pickled, puckery cabbage slaw, comes threaded with fresh oregano and a light vinegar bite. A forkful of the salad cuts the fatty richness and strikes a flavor punch.
Tamales ($1.75 each, chicken or pork) aren't like those you'll find at a Mexican restaurant. The oval discs of corn dough come steamed in banana leaves, the tamales embedded with herbs and chunky veggetables, and stuffed with juicy pork or chicken that was just a touch too dry.
For entrees, the menu is heavy on soups, stews and grilled meats. Molcajete ($15.99) is named after the towering, deep-bellied stone bowl in which the hodgepodge of meat and veggies is served. The heated, cavernous bowl came brimming with a chile-spiked watery broth. Fanned around the edges of the bowl were thinly pounded grilled steak (a bit chewy), sautéed cactus (smooth and slippery), wedges of spicy sausage (offering a punchy hit of heat) and avocado halves nestled against a sizeable square of semi-melted fresh cheese.
After trying this dish at two restaurants, I've learned fried yuca and pork (yuca con chicharron, $7) is just not pleasing to my palate. The fried yuca root (similar to a potato, but softer and sweeter, and also called cassava) wasn't as bothersome as the fried hunks of pork that required too much chewing for a weak flavor payoff. (My dining partner called them "pork bark.") Your patience for chewing hunks of hard meat might be more tolerant than mine.
During a second visit, bistec encebellado ($11.99) was a flavorful - if a touch chewy - slow-simmered steak in a tomato sauce sharing a plate with hearty refried beans and herby, garlicky rice spiked with carrots, corn and peas.
Bring your friends, family and office mates - this restaurant caters to all. Mi Chalateca is in an odd space next to a rental car company on busy Pacific Highway. It's family run, light on efficient service but big on friendly. The converted office décor might not scream El Salvador, but the murals and posters do.
Mi ChalatecaWhere: 33427 Pacific Highway S., Federal WayPhone: 253-838-1688
When I last wrote about El Pulgarcito in 2008, the small restaurant was in the same funky strip mall off Bridgeport and Pacific Highway but was kitty corner to its current storefront. While the space has doubled, the food retains the same homey Salvadoran quality that makes it a great hole-in-the-wall find.
Like Mi Chalateca, service is relaxed but exceptionally friendly. The décor is minimal with maps and posters of El Salvador to act as your compass.
Pupusas ($1.95 each) here come in nine varieties. My favorites were the pork (chicharrone) and queso, with zucchini and queso a close second. The corn discs are sweet and nutty - the exterior lightly crunchy, the inside tender and soft. Curtido is heavy on the oregano and has a puckery, delicious flavor. I ordered an extra side during each visit. Doctor it with your choice of two sauces; one spicy, the other mildly punched with flavor. Both are house made.
Tamales ($1.95) don't come wrapped in banana leaves. The dry crumb and lack of fillings might leave you wanting more flavor. Yuca frita ($8.50) was that same dish of fried yuca with fried chunks of pork. The texture of the pork is just too tough.
The bulk of the menu, like at Mi Chalateca, is soups, stews and grilled meats. A Mexican menu also is offered (as is a breakfast menu), but I steered toward the Salvadoran side.
Carne Guisada ($10.50), a slow-cooked beef stew, was dosed with chiles and lime. The stew is perfect for piling onto the accompanying thick discs of fried corn dough (think tortillas, but much more chewy). Thick, garlicky black beans and white rice came on the side.
Sopa de res ($10.99) was thin and watery, the broth heavy on cilantro and light on grilled beef ribs. Cabbage, zucchini and carrots powered the soup.
Polla guisado ($10.50) was described as chicken-style pot roast, dark portions of meat slow simmered in onions and tomato with a mild chile sauce. Mild, white, vegetable-studded rice along with tasty black beans and thick corn discs came on the side.
The menu is so large that two visits wasn't enough. A seafood menu heavy on soups and fried whole fish looked intriguing enough for a third visit.
El PulgarcitoWhere: 12134 Pacific Highway S.W., LakewoodPhone: 253-582-5173