Good, bad and ugly

Pupusas with salsa and relish at El Paisano.

Pupusas with salsa and relish at El Paisano.

Photo/Allison Young

For more information, visit www.elpaisano

I’ve enjoyed Mexican food since childhood, but didn’t discover the related-yet-different flavors of Central America until the dawn of the new millennium. There are now several restaurants serving a mix of Mexican and Salvadoran cuisine, and El Paisano, near the Reno Costco, serves some of the best pupusas and curtido I’ve ever had. Sadly, the rest of our experience was fraught with pitfalls, so let’s start with the good before we get to the bad and the ugly.

Pupusas, a thick, stuffed corn tortilla, are made fresh to order, so you’ll have plenty of time to play with your phone or—gasp—have a conversation. We ordered two popular varieties, queso y loroco and revuelta ($1.89 each). The former is a mix of cheese and the buds of a flowering plant whose flavor has been described as “nutty artichoke,” which is close enough. Revuelta is a mix of cheese, beans and ground chicharrón (deep-fried pork belly). The pupusas were 50 percent larger than average, crispier than most, and super-stuffed with filling. Traditionally paired with curtido—a slightly fermented relish of shredded cabbage and veggies—the end result is a great combination if done right. Man, oh man, these were right as rain.

We then enjoyed another Salvadoran favorite, yuca frita ($5.49), a plate of deep-fried cassava root and chicharrón chunks that can’t possibly be good for you. Nothing says “bring on the heart attack” like enormous, fried starch strips and extra-fatty pork. Worth it.

Chicken tamal ($2) is similar in construction to a Mexican tamale, but the texture is much more gelatinous. Perhaps steaming in a banana leaf rather than corn husk is responsible. The masa dough was filled with shredded chicken, red potato and—likely canned—green beans, with an overall flavor reminiscent of a supermarket pot pie. Not my cup of tea.

With only five Salvadoran items on the menu, the place is more taquería than anything else, complete with standard Mexican restaurant decor. It’s family-style to the max, with a playpen full of toys for the niños and no cerveza en la casa.

A decent salsa bar is stocked with housemade relishes and sauces, with housemade chips available at the counter. Sadly, their crispy goodness is ruined by having been smashed into little shards that can barely hold dip. An intact crispy tortilla was the best part of my tostada de ceviche ($3.50), as there was really no flavor to speak of in the fish topping.

The shredded beef chimichanga ($6.99) with refried beans and rice was pretty good, although the filling was overloaded with cinnamon. The tortilla was lightly crisped, topped with thin sour cream and a sprinkle of queso cotija. The rice and beans were average, but adding chunky salsa livened things up.

The veggies in my wife’s chicken fajitas ($9.99) were fresh and tasty, with appropriate seasoning, chunky guacamole and thick, handmade corn tortillas. How then to explain spongy, oddly uniform, chicken-esque strips of “meat”? We agreed it tasted like processed frozen chicken, akin to that of a fast-food grilled chicken sandwich. Awful texture and flavor; my wife couldn’t finish her meal.

Possibly from the same freezer came a chicken enchilada I ordered a la carte ($1.59), resembling something from a TV dinner. The thin tortilla, thin sauce, and scrap of shredded cheese bore no resemblance to a homemade enchilada. So that’s the good and the bad, but I promised ugly.

The chile relleno combo ($8.99) was bizarrely difficult to look at. Two large, mild peppers were stuffed with queso fresco—so far so good. But instead of egg-battered, crispy goodness with a side of spicy sauce, the entire plate was slathered in a murder scene of bland tomato puree. Once I got to the cheese and added some hot sauce, it was edible-yet-disappointing. I’ll definitely be back for the great pupusas and yuca frita, but the rest of the menu is a minefield I won’t tread again.