First Taste

First Taste: An Exciting New Salvadorian Eatery in North Phoenix

Camerones Rancheros sidekicked with rice and serious refried black beans.
Camerones Rancheros sidekicked with rice and serious refried black beans. Chris Malloy
click to enlarge A pair of pupusas hot off the griddle and at their peak. - CHRIS MALLOY
A pair of pupusas hot off the griddle and at their peak.
Chris Malloy
When a new spot opens in town, we're eager to check it out, let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened — an occasion to sample a few items and satisfy curiosities (both yours and ours).

Restaurant: Reinas De Las Pupusas Restaurant
Location: 2308 West Northern Drive
Open: About 10 months
Eats: Salvadorian, with a focus on pupusas
Price: $5 to $20
Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

North Phoenix’s Reinas De Las Pupusas Restaurant is the latest impressive newcomer to our quietly robust Salvadorian dining scene. As its name suggests, pupusas are its pillowy anchor, the cornerstone of a tight menu, and they are very good. But there are reasons beyond the griddled, weighty, cheese-stuffed corn cake to visit Reinas De Las Pupusas.

click to enlarge Inside Reinas De Las Pupusas Restaurant in north Phoenix. - CHRIS MALLOY
Inside Reinas De Las Pupusas Restaurant in north Phoenix.
Chris Malloy
One: The family-owned eatery has been foil-wrapping one of the great tamales in town.

Both tamales and pupusas are the handiwork of Dolores Garcia, a native of Ahuachapán, El Salvador. Last September, she opened Reinas De Las Pupusas with three daughters who work as wait staff in the restaurant. They are Sarah Garcia, Marielena Garcia, and Katherine Miron. Previously, Miron took some business courses in college with an eye toward one day helping her mom open a family restaurant. Theirs prepares traditional Salvadorian food — breakfast to dinner to dessert.

“She had been working in a different Salvadorian restaurant for 10 years,” Miron says of her mom. “Me and my sisters wanted to help her out and open this restaurant.”

Their food is worth your attention and does well when taken out. Despite the pandemic, they’ve built a following.

“We actually have been getting pretty busy lately,” Miron says. “In the beginning when this all happened, it was pretty rough. Slowly, we have started getting people in to eat. We’ve been doing pretty good.”

click to enlarge Those crunchy, crispy black splotches. - CHRIS MALLOY
Those crunchy, crispy black splotches.
Chris Malloy
When you dine in or (preferably) grab your to-go bag from the restaurant, you get a sense of why. Scraping and frying sounds emit from the kitchen. A central fountain gurgles, gurgles, gurgles. Loud Salvadorian music plays, reggaeton, bachata, corridos, tunes that hype you for your meal and for living.

Dolores shapes masa into pockets of pupusa by hand, and gives each a long griddling. They come warm, soft-but-lacy, and richly fragrant of corn. Lacy patches and crisper black splotches give the veneer an intricate texture, while softness rules within. Pupusas are cheesy, the mozzarella oozing around fillings.

click to enlarge Yuca wedges like rafters. - CHRIS MALLOY
Yuca wedges like rafters.
Chris Malloy
Go for loroco, a flower common in Salvadorian cooking, creating an almost meaty florality. Go for shrimp, too. Mild pinkish bits scatter nicely through the cheese.

Listen, I’m going to make a weird suggestion, but we live in weird times. These pupusas are at their absolute peak the moment you take your to-go bag to your car. They lose a critical scintilla of lacy-pillowy bite as they slumber in Styrofoam. So honestly, I would steal a few perfect chomps or maybe scarf a whole pupusa before your drive home.

Fried yuca is another item that may lose something in transit. But you should order some anyway. The rafters of yuca and knobs of pork emerge from the deep fryer at just the right time. Packaged together they make for a simple, hearty opening.

On the main course end, some lose nothing on their way from the restaurant to your home. The trick is to go stewy. Las Reinas packages many entrees in tinfoil pockets lidded under Styrofoam, letting the wrapped component stay piping hot.

click to enlarge Camerones Rancheros sidekicked with rice and serious refried black beans. - CHRIS MALLOY
Camerones Rancheros sidekicked with rice and serious refried black beans.
Chris Malloy
Camerones Rancheros brings small, nicely cooked shrimp in spicy tomato sauce with ribbons of pepper. The sauce has depth and steady fire from chiles (they wouldn’t reveal which) and black pepper. It leaves a numb tingle on your lips, one you almost hope would never go away.

click to enlarge The Bistec Encebollado. - CHRIS MALLOY
The Bistec Encebollado.
Chris Malloy
Bistec Encebollado is almost as good — lean-and-slightly-chewy folds of beef drenched in a similar tomato-based sauce, though milder and rounded with onion. Garlicky refried black beans sidekick both. They are silky, rich, and delicious.

To me, though, the tamale still steals the show.

I ordered a single $2.50 tamale, almost as an afterthought. It stayed hot through a long car ride. Peeling off the banana leaf like gift wrap, everything inside gelled together, mozzarella and corn fusing into a single slick block. The herb chipilin gives the whole soft, fragrant package its measured herbal perfume, a deeply floral-earthy bass note. It’s a great tamale.

And they, too, carry out beautifully. “We’re just working all together to make sure everything gets good,” says Miron.

Mission accomplished. 
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy