Does anyone else cringe when they hear of Mayor Phil Gordon's front porch benches and how they're now greeting visitors at Sky Harbor Airport? The mayor's Mayberry aesthetic may have a noble intent; it's supposed to bring us all together, and in doing so, help fight crime. But can't we come up with ways to do such things without looking like hayseeds? Earth to Phil: Like a lot of Gen-Xers living and working in this city, I grew up in frickin' Mayberry, so to speak, and I hated it. When Phoenix was sold to me, it was as the fifth-largest city in the nation, not as some Hee Haw-approved Podunk paradise.
Give me a real city any day of the week, one with those bizarre pairings of peoples and cultures that most of us will recognize as the very definition of "cosmopolitan." You see these all the time in metropolises such as Gotham and La-La Land, and thankfully, there are plenty here in Phoenix if you look for them. This sometimes chaotic jumble of ethnicities makes the polyglot tick, and it's far more intriguing than what Floyd and Goober are fussin' about over at the barbershop.
One of the cooler of these juxtapositions exists in a tiny strip mall out on the west side near 35th Avenue and Northern. On one end, beneath flashing blue lights and the blue-and-white flag of El Salvador, is Hugo's Salvadorean Restaurant. About 12 paces east past a trophy shop and a haircutters is Cafe Sarajevo, its front windows filled with an illustration for a Bosnian sausage sandwich and a Turkish coffee set. From San Salvador to Sarajevo in less than 10 seconds! Now this is what megalopolitan life is all about.
Hugo's is a clean, unpretentious little eatery, with pink booths and tables covered in plastic up front, and a short-order kitchen with a counter you can eat at toward the back. On the stark, white walls are a few knickknacks from El Salvador, and a tiny TV near the kitchen is set permanently on soccer and wrestling matches. The eatery is owned by Aurora Rivas and husband Abraham Rodas. Rivas and Rodas are in car and mortgage sales, respectively. It's Rodas' mom Mercedes who is the heart and soul of the place, and who almost always is in the back cooking when you stroll through the door.
Hugo's serves up various types of pupusas, El Salvador's gift to world cuisine. A pupusa is a thick corn tortilla, filled with everything from pork and cheese to beans and squash. The nosher then tops these fried pies with a cabbage slaw called curtido, and pours tomato salsa and/or hot sauce over it before devouring. It's simple food, but enormously satisfying. Excellent for either a snack or a meal.
Hugo's, which was named in honor of Rodas' deceased father, has a full menu in addition to pupusas. For breakfast you can have a standard huevos rancheros or huevos con chorizo, and for other times of the day, there are carne asada and chile relleno plates. I really savored the pan con pollo, a bread ball stuffed with savory chicken with a mayo spread. And the yuca frita was some of the best I've had in the Valley: deep-fried chunks of yuca topped with curtido and chicharrón -- fried, shredded pork rinds. Mercedes Rodas deserves a blue ribbon for her engrossing yuca frita.
For drinks, Hugo's has familiar Latin American faves like horchata, tamarindo and jamaica. But allow me to suggest a bottle or two of Kolashampan, the creamy, yellowish soda imported from El Salvador, which seems a perfect companion to the Salvadoran vittles.
Step a couple of doors down to Cafe Sarajevo, and you literally enter another world, where the air is filled with Bosnian rock songs from music videos screening on the big, new TV set near the entrance. On the walls are murals depicting Bosnian cities such as Sarajevo, Gorazde and Mostar, and in the back is a little counter where customers enjoy thick Bosnian/Turkish coffee or a soda from the region, such as the Orangina-like Jupi, or the almost bitter, caramel-colored Cocta. Also in the rear is a little Eastern European grocery store, with Croatian chocolates, as well as jars of an eggplant-pepper spread called ajvar, and refrigerators filled to bursting with specialty sausages, meats, cheeses and cakes. There are even audio cassettes and VHS tapes in Serbo-Croatian, if you know the tongue.
At one of the tables out front, you can choose from a menu of Bosnian delights, the most popular of which has to be the cevapi, or sausage sandwich. Cevapi themselves are stubby, mixed-meat sausages, using both lamb and beef, and you can get five, 10 or 15 of them between slices of lepinja, a flat bread that's toasted on the outside, soft on the inside, and buttery throughout. This comes with onions, and mounds of ajvar and sour cream. The bread is so floppy, I don't know how you can scarf it as is, so I took to tearing bits off, wrapping them around a sausage, and adding onions, sour cream and ajvar to my tummy's content.
In addition, Cafe Sarajevo offers a pretty good chicken breast-mushroom sandwich with the same bread, and there's a hefty "meat pita" called a burek, which will easily add a pound or two to your midsection. The owners of Cafe Sarajevo are Seida and Dean Turulja, Dean having been raised here in the States by his Bosnian parents, and Seida being a recent arrival. Seida is a marvel in the kitchen, which is hidden behind the coffee counter in the rear. Like any good cook, she's always got something different brewing for the week. When I was last there, it was a delectable goulash with thick, yellow rice. She was serving it as a side dish, but I'd be going back for an entree-size portion if she added it to the menu.
Everyone has a vision of what an urban environment should be, and the mayor's is pretty goofy, but I suppose I could put up with Gordon's cornpone PR if he'd plunk down a couple of those benches next to Hugo's and Cafe Sarajevo. Not that anyone will be sitting on them until this 110-degree heat goes away in October. But after then, save me a space.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.
More RESTAURANTS News
- Hidden Track Bottle Shop: Boutique Wine Store to Open This Summer in Downtown
- The Taco and Dilla Parlor: Luncha Libre Food Truck Goes Brick-and-Mortar
- Westward Brewing Co. in Central Phoenix Will Open Later This Summer — Here's a Peek Inside
- 100 Favorite Dishes 2015: Pork Chop at Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe