Salvador Deli

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

The glutton in me is just fine with that. These tamals are stellar, the tamal de elote more like vaguely sweet cornbread, dry and crumbly and served in an open-face husk. The crowning touch is a puddle of crèma, a silky, mild sour cream with the loose consistency of yogurt. A forkful of tamal, a dip of crèma -- nirvana.

Crèma puts sparks in another entree, platano frito. Literally, this means fried bananas, but they're plantains, the firmer, less sweet variety of the fruit. Two whole plantains are finished to a luscious golden brown, caramelized on the edges and served alongside a pool of creamy refrieds. Layer the flavors on your fork, and you'll understand why certain dishes become national treasures.

I'm willing to learn. Did the Chinese ever occupy El Salvador? Actually, it would have to have been Chinese transplanted to the States, then relocated to Central America. Because the plato de chaomin served here is just as it sounds phonetically -- the American-Chinese creation chow mein. Who cares where it came from, let's just be pleased it landed at this strip mall on the west side.

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.

Who'd have thought thin spaghetti noodles could be so endearing, tossed with julienne carrot, onion, green pepper and bay shrimp? There's little to the sauce -- butter and a few timid herbs as far as I can discern -- but it's all surprisingly tasty.

Perhaps the French stopped by, too. Salpicón, typically a French dish, actually originates from the Spanish sal (salt) and picar (cut). Forget the linguistics lesson, just focus on a pile of moist, finely shredded beef. It's a build-your-own deal: Pull a portion of pupusa, stuff it with meat plus sides of buttery white rice, raw onion bits, tomato niblets, curdito and cilantro. A spritz of lemon wedges, a splash of green sauce and we're good to go.

Carne de puerco guisada is less interesting. It's supposed to be stew, but it's more like that ultra-thin wanna-be that most of us have created as we've worked our way toward mastering a Crockpot. Boring is an understatement for this dish of pork, carrot fingers, large chunked potato and sliced onion served alongside beans and rice.

Ample dashes of habanero are required for the desayuno Salvadoreno, too. The breakfast dish features Salvadoran chorizo, meaning pork sausage with none of the trademark Mexican seasoning. Mixed with scrambled eggs and a bit of red chile, this is purely peasant food. A side of casamiento, though, is excellent. It's herbed black beans with white rice cooked in chicken broth, and the combination is delicious.

Mex-Sal's tried-and-true Mexican dishes are less successful, primarily because low-quality ingredients, in such a familiar form, can't hide. The best of the bunch is camaron à la diabla -- devil's shrimp -- slathered with dark, fiery chipotle sauce. The small shrimp are so-so, but the sauce makes up for it, wrapped in flour tortillas and spread with sides of beans, rice, lettuce and curdito.

Tacos look good -- the soft corn tortillas topped with chopped carne or chicken, cilantro and onion. But the meat is tough and gristly; the chicken stringy and off-tasting. A machaca burrito doesn't make it, either, tasting of unscraped grill and stuffed with dry meat, runny egg, tomato, jalapeño, and refried beans.

And chuck the chicken soup, a giant crock of cocido stocked with a whole drumstick and rib, large chunks of tomato and potato, chimayo, elbow macaroni, rice, carrot and corn on the cob. The downfall's in the broth, basically oily water floating with pimply poultry skin. Spiked with generous amounts of salsa, the dish is barely okay.

There are a million better places for Mexican food in the Valley. But for the spirit of El Salvador, Mex-Sal North is winning the battle.

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