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At El Atlacatl, a decades-old restaurant in Little Havana, you have a better chance of being served by owner Napoleon Moreno's brown-eyed daughters than a waitress. Karla, 28 years old, and Flor, 25, have infectious smiles, hourglass figures, and long brown hair that fades to auburn around their narrow, tanned faces. Along with their twin 21-year-old brothers, Napoleon and Claudio, they push the sopa de res, an intensely flavored corn-yellow soup with big chunks of carrot and potato and rich, fatty knots of tender beef. It's ordered by nearly every table every day.
"If there's a table of four, someone will order it as an extra so everyone can get a bite," Karla says.
It's mirrored by sopa de gallina, a similar-looking soup that features a once-stringy old hen instead of beef. The slightly gamey bird is roughly chopped and slowly cooked until the meat becomes buttery soft and the attached sinew a richly flavored jelly.
The humble bird is also dipped in cornmeal and then wrapped and steamed in a cassava leaf that lends a woody, herbal fragrance to the sweet, rich tamale.
The Moreno family, which came to Miami from El Salvador, is an example of a whole generation of Central Americans, from Hondurans to Mexicans to Nicaraguans, who flooded South Florida in the late '70s and early '80s. They escaped war and political upheaval, bringing millennia-old cuisine with them. Archaeologists have found evidence of El Salvador's most famous dish, pupusas, dating back more than a thousand years. The thick white cornmeal tortilla is most often stuffed with cheese, beans, and ground pork and then griddled until crunchy and pleasantly charred.
Herbs and seasonings found only in small swaths of Central America are prevalent in the dishes these immigrants brought along. Loroco, an aromatic edible flowering vine that has the distinct, earthy flavors of artichoke and nuts is a key ingredient in pupusas. A spice mixture called Pipil, named for indigenous tribes of the region, is a potent combination of annatto, clove, allspice, and black pepper. It's a staple in Salvadoran meat and vegetable dishes.
But this family's story doesn't begin with food. Napoleon Moreno arrived in Miami from San Francisco El Dorado, El Salvador, in 1979. His father sold 200 cows to collect enough money to buy his son a U.S. visa and send him away the year the Salvadoran civil war began. On a short walk days before leaving, Napoleon said, he came across eight decapitated bodies strewn on the side of the road.
Moreno first lived in a ramshackle apartment complex in Allapattah with as many as eight men sleeping on the floor in one cramped space. There he met his wife, Rosa Margarita, and began working as a dishwasher at Umberto's Italian Restaurant off Commercial Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.
The young couple scrimped and saved for nearly a decade and, along with Rosa's brother Mario Chavez, put together $40,000 to open the first El Atlacatl restaurant in 1989 on SW 22nd Avenue at Seventh Street in Little Havana. They named it after the last indigenous leader of the Mesoamerican state that today is El Salvador. Atlacatl, who ruled into the 16th Century, is said to have jumped into a volcano rather than be killed by Spanish conquistadors.
The location had once been a dingy Cuban bar laden with illegal slot machines. "The owner was in jail because he had killed somebody," Karla says, translating for her father. The barber next door, who had become friends with the elder Napoleon after he arrived in 1980, told him it was available. At first the customers were mostly displaced Central Americans, like the Morenos. But the barber soon began sending his patrons next door for pupusas and mariscada, a beige-red shellfish broth-based soup brimming with clams, squid, flaky whitefish, and crab.
It wasn't long before El Atlacatl, one of the first Central American restaurants in the area, became the most popular. Rosa Margarita was the cook. She had prepared many megameals for her 18 siblings in San Isidro, Cabañas. Out of necessity, she was in kitchens before and after arriving in Miami in the late '70s. Before the opening of El Atlacatl, she had found work at the Galindo brothers' now-closed Latin American on Coral Way at SW 27th Avenue. "She wanted to be a teacher," daughter Karla says. "But it couldn't happen."
A decade after the first restaurant opened, Napoleon, who had since become the chef at Franco and Vinny's on Sunrise Boulevard, opened El Atlacatl on SW 17th Avenue at Fourth Street in Little Havana. Today the orange-yellow restaurant with a Spanish-tiled roof and tiny parking lot is the hub of the empire. The main dining room is wrapped in warm-orange walls that match the Spanish roofing tiles that hang over a red-brick bar. World Cup qualifying and exhibition matches blare on flat-screen TV sets as customers sit at red-and-white tables while scooping up sweet bites of tamales de elote, a sweet corn tamale served with sour cream that creates an addictive salty-sweet contrast. Pupusas are served with a trio of condiments, including curtido, a fermented vegetable slaw with the funky pop of Korean kimchee but without its blistering chili spice.