Battle of the Dishes

Salvadoreno v. Guanaquito: Clash of the Pupusas

Southwesterners often pride themselves on their knowledge of Latin American food, mostly focusing on the all-encompassing "Mexican" description. Well, it is time to broaden our horizons, people! Move on down toward El Salvador and discover possibly the most delectable and perfect combination of the Latin flavors we know and love: the Pupusa (poo-POO-sah). What appears at first as a thick, homemade corn tortilla, the Pupusa reveals itself as a masa treat stuffed with beans, cheese, meat, and/or flowers (yes!). Ever been frustrated by the difficulty of eating a taco? How about the discomfort of an overstuffed quesadilla? Well, a pupusa may be your answer. (Though please refer to business associate for an expert comparison of the three options.)

See also: - Eating the World: Salvadoreno's

A typical Salvadorian treat, this meal traditionally is accompanied by a pickled cabbage mixture called curtido and salsa roja, a thin and flavorful tomato sauce. It's cooked on a griddle and sold on the streets of El Salvador for a quick bite. With just a few options for this Salvadorian treat here in Phoenix, it only makes sense to pit them against each other. Have at it, you perfect little treats, you.

In This Corner: Salvadoreno Restaurant

The Setup: This family-owned restaurant serves food from all over Latin America, including Panama, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and, of course, El Salvador. With four Valley locations and one in California, these Salvadorian transplants, Miriam and Nina Martha, have effectively spread their family recipes to a large American audience.

The Good: The masa-to-stuffing ratio was really what shined for Salvadoreno -- the cheesy inside was gooey, hot, and well dispersed throughout the circular pupusa. It often is a struggle to evenly distribute the ingredients within a pupusa, but Salvadoreno masters the bean and cheese relationship. These pupusas were sturdy enough to eat by hand, with a crispy and slightly charred exterior that gives a good crunch, quickly followed by oozing cheese and beans. Though the loroco pupusa, which is filled with cheese and a native flower to El Salvador, could have used some more flowers to counter the powerfully salty queso.

The Bad: The curtido at Salvadoreno left much to be desired, as the pickled cabbage that accompanies these otherwise fabulous pupusas is lacking in both spice and flavor. Usually a refreshing, bitter, and spicy addition to a pupusa, the uninteresting curtido could easily be forgotten while at Salvadoreno.

In The Other Corner: Guanaquito

The Setup: Named for the people of El Salvador, Guanaquito also is a family-owned restaurant and a hard find along McDowell, with a front that appears to be closed shaded by the huge "Gourmet House of Hong Kong" sign. Fear not, as the entrance is in the back of this modest restaurant filled with Salvadorian touches and an extensive menu to whet anyone's taste buds.

The Good: The sides definitely stand out at this pupusería, with an obvious attention to detail in both the salsa roja and curtido, which must always be eaten with pupusas. A balance of spiciness and flavor gives Guanaquito the upper hand here, with the fact that each bite of the pupusa was only truly complete with both the sides. Plus, the meal came with complimentary chips and fabulous salsa (of which I could have drunk a pint glass worth). For the pupusas themselves, the cheese was a much more positive taste influence than Salvadoreno -- for one there was much more, and it was gooier and more flavorful, not just a salty (yet delicious) mass.

The Bad: Though the cheese was delectable, Guanaquito had trouble with spreading the bean and loroco love. At first, I had thought that I had mistakenly received two loroco pupusas, but it was that the beans were simply only on one side of the pupusa. And the loroco was so lacking that the cheese had only a few green, flowery specks almost like a pepperjack cheese rather than an additional, non-cheese ingredient. The high levels of cheese, while delicious and perfectly crisped on the outside, made for an overall disappointingly softer masa exterior.

And the Winner is . . . Salvadoreno. Though both spots served delicious meals, it is clear that Salvadoreno has a knack for pupusas by fully understanding the ratio necessary to succeed. Given, it is hard to find an unsatisfactory pupusa and Guanaquitos does have the ingredients and capabilities for a delectable experience, this battle is about pupusas and Salvadoreno definitely lives up to its name.

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Nina Gruber
Contact: Nina Gruber