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In praise of pupusas

Meatless in steer city

Release Date: 2004-06-10

I fell in love with pupusas after a summer stint as an intern in Washington, D.C. In the part of the capital where I lived, Central Americans outnumbered Chicanos and pupuserias took the place of taquerias. This was my first real experience with large groups of Latinos that were not Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans, the "big three" of our population. Through my twice-weekly dinners, weekend jaunts into the city's nightlife, and the numerous labor rallies in which I participated, I gained an understanding of a part of the Latino community too-often overlooked or ignored by both mainstream Anglo observers and Raza cultural commentators.

Pupusas are a staple of El Salvador, as common a menu item in Salvadoran restaurants as tacos or hamburgers are here. Versatile enough to be vegetarian-friendly, pupusas most resemble gorditas, thick pancakes of masa stuffed with any number of fillings, usually cheese, beans, chicken, or pork. Instead of being deep-fried, however, they're cooked on the stove-top, like a pancake or a tortilla, and served alongside a salad of shredded cabbage and julienned carrots.

Unlike the coastal cities of D.C. or San Francisco, San Antonio's Salvadoreño community comprises just a fraction of a percentage of the city's total Latino population, numbering a little over a thousand. Despite their community's diminutive size, there's enough support for two Salvadoreño places in town (a third, Rio Verde, closed down late last summer).

La Playa Seafood, the oldest (they've just finished celebrating their 15th anniversary) and largest (without even counting their recently opened sister restaurant at 3343 West Avenue) has become an institution by virtue of their longevity. They share the same vibe as the South Side's Camarón Pelado: a quality, dependable, family-friendly neighborhood joint with reasonable prices, a great ambience, and delicious food. But the dining experience, great as it is, or their selection of seafood, which goes beyond the fried fish and ceviche, wouldn't bring me back were it not for their pupusas.

Walk into La Playa on any given Friday night, and you might find yourself waiting a few minutes for a table at this popular West Side eatery. Use the opportunity to read the specials posted on the wall, wave to some familiar faces, follow the waitstaff from kitchen to table to table to kitchen again, and take in the hustle-bustle of the place - a marked contrast to the deceptively tranquil exterior. During holidays you might even find yourself serenaded by a passing músico or two, and there is an opportunity to treat yourself to some homemade empanadas.

By this time you should have found a seat, maybe in the back where it's a little quieter, next to a young couple with their children, or across from the group of teachers about to enjoy the end of another work week. Grab a seat, order a Coke en botella, and enjoy the chips while you wait for your meal.

In contrast to the sensory overload of La Playa, Pupuseria La Rancherita allows for a more laid-back, intimate dining experience, right down to the home-cooked meal. For one, it's a lot smaller than La Playa, and even during a noon rush there are plenty of seats available, both inside and out on the patio area. Perhaps this is why it reminds me so much of my favorite haunts in D.C. Or maybe it's their horchata, the rice drink which they make thick and sweet, with a heavy dose of cinnamon, like the Salvadoreño cafés I frequented.

Whereas La Playa's pupusas are griddle-fried and oozing with melted cheese, La Rancherita's taste like they were heated on a cast-iron comal, the slightly salty, melted - but still intact - queso blanco interior contrasting nicely with the crisp masa exterior. (Vegans or those who are lactose-intolerant can also order pupusas with beans.) In addition to the cheese filling, both La Playa and La Rancherita also offer pupusas with loroco, a type of flowering plant native to El Salvador whose flavor, unfortunately, tends to get drowned out when combined with anything else.

When my internship came to a close at the end of summer, I said good-bye to D.C.: Good-bye to the things I didn't like about the city, such as the self-important politicos trying to make a name for themselves, and the pretensions that come with the illusions of power (and good riddance to car thieves too!). And good-bye, also, to that which I came to love, like the nighttime rallies in support of the Justice for Janitors campaign, the hole-in-the-wall Cuban club, and above all, the pupusas I enjoyed in the scores of mom-and-pop eateries that dotted my neighborhood. Fortunately, the beauty and diversity of my beloved San Antonio is such that I need not go far to relive those favorite food memories. •


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