From conversations with my friends to the pages of the New York Times, budget dining is as popular a topic as ever. Everyone's on the lookout for a killer taco, a scrumptious hot dog, a bargain breakfast, or an irresistible happy hour special. I'm sure the economy is partly responsible, but does a good deal ever really go out of style? I don't think so.
So I got to brainstorming about the cheap eats that don't get enough love — but should. What about pupusas? You know, those thick, doughy Salvadoran corn tortillas oozing with melted cheese and other savory fillings? They usually run around two bucks apiece, and they're so delicious.
I knew I was onto something when I mentioned pupusas to several different food-savvy people and the responses ranged from "Huh?" to something vaguely inappropriate. Yep, more people need to know about pupusas.
They're one of the prize dishes of El Salvador, good for a satisfying snack but easy enough to make into a meal if you have more than one. At Salvadoran restaurants around town, you'll find at least a couple of different kinds on the menu, served hot and dotted with toasty brown griddle marks.
Traditionally, you'd load them up with curtido, a light, spicy cabbage slaw that comes as a condiment with every order, plus a dab of hot sauce. The kicky acidity of the toppings makes a great foil for rich fillings, but pupusas are plenty good when eaten plain.
At Eliana's, a sunny, spacious spot just north of McDowell, the pupusas come in regular and vegetarian versions, the latter omitting pork from a mix of cheese, refried beans, and peppers. I'll take pork any day, although the tangy white cheese they use is certainly flavorful enough to stand on its own.
The best way to start things off is with the special combination appetizer, which includes one pupusa, a deep golden pastele Salvadoreño de carne (fried meat pie), and a chicken tamale. My pastele was hot and crisp, while the moist tamale was packed with tender shreds of meat. Somehow, the three items worked really well together — and tasted great with a cold horchata (made with morro seeds, which reminded me of sesame), as good as any I've had.
I'd eat that combo platter as an entrée, but there's plenty more to hold my attention here, including fried fish and carne asada. Pretty much everything comes with a salad, rice, silky-smooth refried beans that you can eat with a spoon, and awesome homemade tortillas that are typical of all of these Salvadoran spots. Unlike Mexican tortillas, these are small and hefty (about as thick as a pencil) — basically pupusas without anything inside.
Arroz a la Valenciana is such a popular dish that a picture of it is painted right on the window at Eliana's. It was a fragrant heap of yellow rice with a hint of chicken-y saltiness and chunks of chicken meat buried in the rice. On top, there was an arrangement of tail-on shrimp, carrots, and peas. I liked how light and healthful the dish tasted, but I was flat-out seduced by the pollo encebollado, moist chicken and onions in a mouthwatering tomato sauce flecked with black pepper. Those tortillas came in handy for cleaning the plate.
Interestingly, pollo encebollado at another Salvadoran joint — Guanaquito, in central Phoenix — was an entirely different dish, though just as satisfying. Here, the chicken was slathered in a creamy white sauce laden with herbs and sweet onions. Much more unusual, however, was the egg-dipped relleno de pacaya. It's an edible part of the pacaya date palm tree, native to Central America, and although its tangy, slightly bitter flavor seemed an acquired taste, I was intrigued by it. It made sense as a contrast to the rich, fried coating.
Guanaquito's pupusas tasted straight off the griddle, with a slight crispiness that gave way to a generous gob of gooey cheese inside. Here, you can get them with mild chicharrón, bits of loroco (an edible flower native to El Salvador, with a flavor similar to broccoli or dark leafy greens), beans, a mix of all three, or plain pork. I was partial to loroco.
The plato tipico appetizer was an easy way to sample some other Salvadoran specialties, including a soft chicken tamale wrapped in a banana leaf, golden chunks of yuca frita (starchy white cassava root, batter-fried), and some pasteles de carne, filled with ground beef and carrots. To drink, I slurped down ensalada, a light, fruity drink with bits of apple and carrot swirling in the glass — refreshing.
Restaurante Salvadoreño makes fantastic pupusas, and with locations in Mesa, Sunnyslope, and the West Side, this family-owned place is doing more to bring these Salvadoran treats to the Valley than anyone else. I stopped by the original Mesa location, inconspicuously planted in the corner of a Big Lots strip mall.
These pupusas seemed to be less about cheese, compared to those at other places. Frijol con queso contained a layer of lip-smacking black bean paste with cheese, while loroco con queso tasted more of vegetable than other versions. Revueltas con frijoles, chicharrón y queso was pleasingly salty, with ground pork, beans, and cheese.
The rest of the menu ranged from traditional Salvadoran breakfasts (scrambled eggs with chorizo, etc.) to seafood dishes. I sampled a lovely chile relleno, cloaked in the lightest veil of egg batter, and ate way too much of the carne asada, served with grilled scallions and a grilled jalapeño. Both entrees came with a simple salad of iceberg, tomato, and radish, but each was paired with different rice — buttery, veggie-studded white rice with the chile relleno, and a flavorful mix of rice with black beans for the steak.
To wash it all down, I was happy with two homemade aguas frescas. Cinnamon-tinged horchata had that distinctive flavor of ground morro seed. And I knew the tamarindo was fresh because the foreign object floating at the bottom at my glass soon revealed itself to be an actual tamarind pod. No wonder it was so tasty.
I think that's the secret of all these Salvadoran restaurants. From the pupusas to the pasteles, everything has the simple, undeniable goodness of homemade food.
The fact that you can feast on it for a song only makes it that much more appealing.