Salvador Deli

A trip to Mex-Sal North is an adventure in dining for those who seek the cuisine of El Salvador

War. What is it good for? For Americans, at least, strife in other countries can lead to greater dining variety. As immigrants land on our shores, escaping the constant upheaval of their homelands, they bring with them intriguing new foods, exotic recipes and a taste of the globe many of us might never know otherwise.

After they've settled in and the novelty of Big Macs wears off, many of our new residents find themselves craving the foods of their upbringing. Some, finding little in the way of ethnic staples here, take the brave step into entrepreneurialism -- that American dream of owning one's own business. They open specialty grocery stores and, if we're lucky, restaurants.

The search for a better life is what has brought the Valley such shops as Bosnian Delicious Food in Phoenix, Russian Market in Phoenix and Benchris African Caribbean Market in Glendale. And now, Mex-Sal North, a restaurant specializing in the cuisine of El Salvador.

Pupusas and fried plantains at Mex-Sal North are enough to tear 
Estephania Rodriguez away from the TV.
Erik Guzowski
Pupusas and fried plantains at Mex-Sal North are enough to tear Estephania Rodriguez away from the TV.

Details

Plato de chaomin: $7.25
Salpicon à la Salvadorena: $6.50
Loroco y queso pupusas: $1.60
Tamal de elote: $1.55
Licuado de mamey: $2.75
Camaron à la diabla: $8.50

2722 West Indian School, 602-279-1002. Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 1 a.m.

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Owned by Sonia and Neo Lazo, Mex-Sal came about after Sonia's mother was driven out of El Salvador by constant war. Mom had owned two restaurants there, and after relocating to the Valley, Sonia herself worked in several chef positions. She says the impulse to open her own eatery came to her, quite literally, in a dream.

Although Mex-Sal looks like it might still be expecting violence (the thick floor-to-ceiling bars on the entry windows are intimidating), once inside, all is sweetness and light. The Lazos keep things a family affair with pleasant, almost shy service, cheerfully explaining (in Spanish) what specific menu items include.

It's welcome attention -- some ingredients defy even the most encompassing culinary dictionary. El Salvador is in Central America, just south of Guatemala, and its cuisine has a strong Mexican influence -- favorites include tamales, enchiladas, burritos, chorizo, chile rellenos and such. Salvadoran food, however, is distinguished by milder spicing and greater use of vegetables. And while Mex-Sal caters to its neighborhood by offering a full menu of traditional Mexican dishes, too, its heart and soul remain firmly in El Salvador.

The only problem? Salvadoran food, by its nature, and from my experience along its Guatemalan border, typically isn't thrilling. For Valley folks who aren't used to touring beyond their own zip code, the adventure likely will be more for the experience than the cuisine. But give it a try -- several dishes are worth a trek into Mex-Sal's industrial-park area.

Mex-Sal isn't much to look at, for sure. White walls are hung with a crazy quilt of Central American posters, serapes hang across the front windows, seen-better-days piñatas dangle and flags advertising beer rustle in the breeze of air conditioning. An area that's sometimes a Salvadoran grocery is most often used to store cleaning supplies, but folks in need will find the Lazos happy to give them the goods on request.

Did the Lazos go deaf from exploding shells before their escape, though? Almost always, a TV set to the Spanish station blares at full blast, as does a jukebox playing Spanish CDs, and a radio screeching, you guessed it, mariachi music. All at once. Given that except for weekend nights, the place plays to a fairly insignificant crowd, the din is deafening.

Perhaps baskets of chips aren't authentic Salvadoran, but it would be nice to have something to dip into the little dishes of punchy tomatillo and red sauce that arrive with our drink orders. Food is cooked to order here, and it takes time, even for a no-nonsense cheese crisp. Diehards can -- and we do -- snack on curtido, a ubiquitous condiment of cabbage, carrot and onion, finely shredded, pickled in cider vinegar and served at room temperature.

Curtido is to be piled atop most dishes, including pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador. These are akin to pancakes, fashioned from masa, stuffed with various bits and griddled until speckled brown and puffed. Natives purchase the little bundles from street vendors and wander along, noshing on pupusas like New Yorkers with hot dogs.

Mex-Sal's version (two per order) is a great way to sample the culture, although I'd happily pay a bit more for more substantial filling. There's barely a smear of the star ingredient in the "house" pork pocket, the frijol y queso (beans and mild white cheese), the chicharron y queso (pork crackling and cheese), or camaron (shrimp). Loroco y queso offers the most impact, although it may take a few bites for first-timers to adjust to the bitterish, earthy nuance of loroco, the stems of a native flower reminiscent of broccoli. Keep in mind that Salvadoran food benefits from blended flavors, and the loroco sings under a splash of tomatillo and crunches of sharp curtido. For the full experience, pair the dish with sips of beer, sugar-rich Pepsi imported from Guadalajara or refrescos naturales (sweet, natural fruit drinks). I'm partial to the licuado de papaya, or the licuado de mamey, drawn from a fruit that resembles an elongated coconut.

The Lazos have poured their hearts into their eatery, having worked on their days off from their former jobs to renovate what was previously a clothing store. Neo laid the black-and-white tile floor, painted the interior and exterior and built the small kitchen in the rear. They became involuntary experts on the City of Phoenix's building codes, inspections and costly utilities. At one point prior to opening, a Chicanos Por La Causa consultant warned them that, based on expenses and projections, Mex-Sal North would barely support itself. But Sonia's mother told her that what she'd started she had to finish -- no backing out. All this just so we could enjoy a taste of Salvadoran tamal?

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