Restaurant Reviews

The Purpose of Pupusas

Although the cuisines of different but neighboring Latin American countries certainly differ more than the cuisines of, say, Vermont and New Hampshire, many individual dishes seem like variations on a similar base.

Thus El Salvador's pupusas (stuffed cornmeal pancakes) are somewhat like a cross between Mexican corn tortillas and Venezuelan arepas -- thicker and looser in texture than the former, thinner than the latter but sharing the same nuttier flavor and more grits-like texture. Where the three items differ is how they're filled. Tortillas and arepas are both easy to figure out: The former just wrap around the filling, the latter are either simply topped or sliced sidewise and stuffed like a sandwich. But pupusas, somehow filled with no seams showing, are as much of a mystery as jelly doughnuts (which I once thought I'd figured out, only to get busted trying to dispose of the syringe I'd procured from a physician friend to inject the grape jelly into the dough balls).

The secret to pupusas at least -- I'm still working on legal jelly doughnut-stuffing solutions -- is to carefully work the dough around the filling, which is tricky while keeping the dough supple and creating a leak-proof seal. A much better idea is to cruise over to easy-to-overlook El Coladito, a Salvadoran lunch counter tucked back into tiny Tamiami Plaza on Calle Ocho. There are other specialties from El Salvador served here, too, like the $5.75 Salvadoran steak, a thin cut similar to Cuban palomillo (which is also offered), but more elaborately smothered in sauce that contains tomatoes as well as peppers and onions.

But it would be a mistake to miss the pupusas.

At Coladito these come with a range of traditional fillings: cheese, beans, chicharrón, or shredded chicken. All are good, and since pupusas are only $1.50 a pop, there's no reason not to try all. And the succulent fried cornmeal cakes come accompanied by a generous serving of curtido, a refreshing hot chili-spiced slaw of pickled cabbage, onion, and carrot that cuts the cakes' grease beautifully, rendering one's appetite ready for almost unlimited pupusa piggery.

I'd strongly recommend springing for an extra 50 cents to upgrade your pupusa with loroco. I hadn't the vaguest idea what loroco was the first time I ordered a cheese pupusa with the stuff, and had little more idea after looking it up on the Net and finding translated recipes calling for "one spoonsful of loroco itched well, and perforated." Another helpful definition explained that "loroco sours and it cooks in average water cup with one picks of salt." Clear? Okay: Loroco is an edible flower, whose uniquely pungent unopened flowers and buds are extremely popular for flavoring food in both El Salvador and Honduras.

Is what's basically a sprinkling of spice worth 50 cents? Taste-test a regular cheese pupusa and a queso con loroco side by side and see for yourself; the difference is hard to describe but dramatic, the flower-spiced version more complex, with hints of chocolate and malt. Mainly, though, the loroco just makes the spiked Salvadoran corncakes taste much more corny. Like a vegetable! Which makes pupusas practically health food, psychologically speaking, so order another with a clear conscience.