The glossy travel poster on the wall boasts tropical forest, sandy beach and blue ocean. "El Salvador--en el corazon de America" it announces. Below the poster is a 1989 calendar illustrated with a map of Central America.
We are not visiting some covert CIA recruitment office. It is a Saturday, just after noon, and a dining accomplice and I are sitting at a table in Eliana's Restaurant on North 32nd Street in Phoenix. We are eagerly awaiting our first encounter with authentic home cooking from El Salvador.
Since neither of us has been to El Salvador--or anywhere in Central America, for that matter--the travel poster is appropriate. Novices at Salvadorian specialties, we cannot help feeling a little like tourists.
Our host, Eliana's nameless husband, is most helpful. He tirelessly explains each dish to us with genuine, but controlled enthusiasm. We can tell just from his manner that he loves his wife's cooking.
Without too much prompting, we order just about one of everything. (Note: This is not because of a big restaurant critic budget. This is because prices are very inexpensive. Also, we are very hungry. And curious.)
My dining accomplice and I sip on some homemade fruit drinks while we look around. Tamarindo is refreshing with its vague plum flavor. Ensalata brings to mind a "snow"--packed with chopped fresh pineapple, it's not too sweet.
Eliana's is cute and appealing. They've done a fantastic job of cleaning and brightening the narrow, old-fashioned lunch counter space. I should know: I once refused to eat at the grimy Italian-American restaurant which sat here a year ago. Maybe it's the colors, but both my dining accomplice and I feel a sort of Seventies deja vu. The formica tabletops are tangerine. Part of the floor is carpeted in orange, brown and gold stripes; the rest is gold-patterned lineoleum. There is even a harvest gold refrigerator behind the counter. And the green hanging plants are real!
Our host brings two large, resealable containers to our table. Condiments. One is a kim-chee-like shredded salad of cabbage, carrots and onion in a tart, white-hot vinegar. The other is tomato and chili salsa with the pureed texture of tomato sauce--it's subtle, but nice.
There aren't many other customers at Eliana's this morning. Two youths converse in Spanish as they wait for a take-out order. An older gentleman grabs a stool at the counter and orders a hamburger. (There are a few North American items on the menu.) Two small girls, nicely dressed, emerge from the back to eye us every now and then.
Our food begins to arrive from the kitchen. "This will make you strong," our host says when he delivers the sopa de res, a beef soup served on Saturdays. He's right. It's a giant bowl of nourishment--a Salvadorian boiled dinner, complete with beef broth. It has everything: an ear of corn, cabbage, platano, yuca, zucchini and beef shank still on the bone. I like the delicate beef stock and tender, fresh vegetables, but realize that, to truly be enjoyed, sopa de res should be treated like a meal in itself. I, of course, add a drop or two of bottled Tapatio sauce for zest.
The little girls have come out of the kitchen for good. They watch with unveiled curiosity as our tabletop fills with Salvadorian delights.
The tamale is wonderful. Served on a dark-green corn husk, smooth, white masa conceals the salsa-spiced chicken, green beans and potato at its center.
The pupusa is corn masa again--this time flattened into a grilled patty containing beans, cheese and chicharrones. I like that the bottom is crunchy, but overall find the pupusa a bit bland and greasy. A spoonful of salsa helps.
Next out is the yuca frita o sancochada. Yuca (pronounced JOO-ca) is a kind of unsweet sweet potato. Pale golden brown in color, the fried yuca looks like a plate of steak fries. Small morsels of greasy carnitas and sliced cucumber and tomato decorate the plate. Peanut oil is the most pronounced flavor, but it's the yuca's texture I love--it's like a perfectly cooked new potato, firm and smooth.
Even better are the pasteles de carne. Thank goodness they come two per order--this is something I don't want to share. Each pastele is a masa turnover fried to a crunchy golden brown. Spicy and piping hot, their insides are tender, steaming and filled with mashed potato, string bean, carrot and bits of pork. What a great self-contained lunch.
We can overhear lots of Spanish chatter and laughter in the kitchen. A woman we imagine is Eliana herself comes out to the table. "Still missing platanos?" she asks. We nod. She goes back into the kitchen.
I don't think I've eaten enough of the sopa de res to benefit from its strength-giving properties. I certainly don't have the strength to finish it. We are really full, but we do not want to miss platano frito con crema and frijoles.