After 15 years in business, Guanaquito in Phoenix has become a local El Salvadorian dining landmark. And from the worn booths to the faded wall decorations, we think it’s probably safe to assume the restaurant hasn’t undergone many changes since it first opened. Then again, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
During our visit, we let our waitress recommend some dishes and she automatically pointed us to the section of the menu titled "Pupusas." These little disks are essentially pillows of corn masa dough normally filled with a smooth paste made of meat, cheese, beans, or all three. We also got the revueltas de queso, chicharrón y frijol, or corn tortilla stuffed with cheese, pork and refried beans.
The pupusa came out after a wait with the explanation that Guanaquito makes theirs fresh to order from scratch. The wait certainly was rewarded — topped with a pickled cabbage spicy slaw and squirt of salsa roja, the pupusa hit all the flavor notes we could have wanted. We could have used a bit more filling for the amount of dough, but weren't too disheartened. We were most surprised by the innocent looking slaw, which was surprisingly complex. Refreshing in combination with the savory pupusa, it snapped back with a feisty heat after a few chews.
Following the pupusa was the hearty carne guisada, or beef stew. Taking up a fork for the “fork to meat” test, we were happy to see that with a little nudge the beef easily shredded. The stew was thick enough to be considered a sauce and was beautifully deep and velvety red in color.
Along with every entrée, Guanaquito includes some rice and corn tortillas, both of which are certainly not treated merely as an after thought. The rice is delicately seasoned with base flavors (onion and garlic, we think) as well as carrots, which tint the rice slightly orange and are flecked throughout. And the tortillas are not your typical thin and flat Mexican variety. These are that flat tortilla's chubby cousin, and provide the meal with more filling substance (as if it needed any more).
We also tried the sopa de gallina, or chicken soup with broiled chicken, rice, and salad (a personal favorite of our waitress). We were surprised to see the chicken served on the side of the soup. The meat was nicely broiled and tender with just enough exterior texture. The broth could only be considered earthy with a rich flavor of herbs. With a squeeze of lime, it achieved just the right brightness. It also featured chunks of Mexican squash, chayote squash, carrots and potatoes.
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At the end of our meal we left Guanaquito feeling as if we had stepped out of a home kitchen. Every dish was prepared with respect to tradition and an understanding of El Salvadorian food, and we look forward to appreciating it again soon.