Think of the pupusa as the Salvadoran cousin to a Mexican sope crossed with a quesadilla. It’s a thick disc made from a masa corn dough; stuffed with meat, beans or cheese; and griddled until it’s a crunchy pancake with gooey innards. The cakes are served with a fermented cabbage slaw called curtido. One or two make an appetizer; three or four make a meal.
Pupusas are eaten with just about every meal in El Salvador. The dish is so much a part of the country’s culinary fabric, the pupusa has its own national holiday (no lie – the second Sunday of November).
Salvadoran food is challenging to find in the South Sound, but we are home to two pupuserias – one opened five months ago in South Tacoma.
Never eaten Salvadoran food? At local pupuserias, you’ll find Salvadoran flavors are tame and muted in contrast to the brighter, more sunny flavors of Mexican cuisine, which is a whole lot easier to find here.
Pupuseria La Usuluteca
Where: 8611 S. Hosmer St., Tacoma; 253-539-9287
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays, noon-9 p.m. Sundays
Our server told us the pupuseria opened five months ago. From the looks of the nearly empty dining room, this little family-friendly restaurant tucked into a strip mall with a pawn shop remains undiscovered.The decor is a mishmash of blue padded vinyl booths and potted orchids with some elements left from the restaurant’s previous life as an Asian restaurant.
Pupusas are $1.75 each with a choice of six fillings: chicken, beans, spinach, ayote or calabaza (both are types of squash), loroco (a vine flower), or chicharron (pork that’s cooked to nearly a paste – not the fried pork rind of Mexico that has the same name).
Our server recommended adding cheese to every pupusa, a good call because the pupusas are nicely textured from crunchy corn dough but understated in flavor. Squeeze bottles of hot and mild salsa and the cabbage curtido boosted the flavor. Curtido was squeaky fresh but a bit too mild. Curtido usually is a sharply flavored vinegary condiment that provides a balance of acidity to the cheesy pupusas.
Also serves: Guisado del res (beef stew) and pollo guisado (chicken stew), both $10.99 with rice, beans and tortillas; molcajete, a mixed bowl of grilled meats with rice and beans. Tamales tasted sweet, tender and moist from a trip to the steamer in a banana leaf.
Neat find: Jamaica, the sour-sweet fruity hibiscus drink. It’s much more sour here, a lot less sweet. I’m a fan.
Service: Our chatty server was conversant in Salvadoran cuisine and provided a delightful experience.
Where: 12134 Pacific Highway S.W., Lakewood; 253-582-5173
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
I’ve loved watching the evolution of this little family restaurant. It started in a smaller space next door, then expanded to a space with two dining rooms. The decor recently received a lift with new booth coverings.
Pupusas are $1.95 each. Flavors are chicharron, cheese, loroco, pork and beans with cheese, calabaza and spinach. The pupusas are thicker discs with delicious, crunchy crusts that break to gooey interiors. Vegetable and meat stuffings tasted well-seasoned and came with stand-alone flavor, but you can add more depth with two kinds of salsa and sharply flavored curtido made with fresh oregano. If you’re a first-time visitor, order the chicharron and cheese.
Also serves: Bistek encebollado ($10.95), similar to carne asada; carne guisado; and pollo guisado ($10.50) served with rice, beans and tortillas. You also will find a popular Salvadoran dish, yuca frita, which is a fried yuca root with fried pork ($8.50, it also comes steamed). There’s an abbreviated Mexican menu with tacos and more.
Neat find: A breakfast menu. I’ve always wanted to try the chorizo breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs.
Service: Always with a smile. This is a welcoming restaurant.
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune.