In the neighborhood
When a friend calls and says he wants to takeme to a small Salvadoran and Mexican restaurant because it has the best chile rellenos in the valley, and he happens to be a restaurant owner himself—not Salvadoran or Mexican—I won’t argue.
When Ernesto and Estella Figueroa came to town from San Francisco almost two decades ago, all they wanted to do was open a nice little neighborhood place. This simple 40-seat casa comida in the Greenbrae Center, run by the family, fills that bill.
They serve breakfast ($5.49-$8.99), and a combined lunch and dinner menu ($7.99-$12.99), most served with white rice, beans and handmade corn or flour tortillas. There are a dozen authentic Salvadoran items, like pupusas, thick, handmade corn tortilla filled with meat and/or cheese and/or rice ($1.69 ea.); yuca frita ($6.49); fried cassava—the starchy tuberous root of a tropical tree—topped with pork and cabbage salad; and salpicon ($8.49) chopped roast beef with beans and rice.
The pupusa revuelta ($1.69) was handmade and filled with beans, pork and cheese. It seemed to melt in my mouth with an inviting flavor of warm maize coming through, creating a savory, multi-textured, satisfying sensation to my taste buds.
Pasilla peppers are used for the delectable relleno ($8.99). The flavor is reminiscent of raisins and bell peppers, and there’s just enough heat to make it interesting but not overwhelm the dish. They use a combination of Monterey cheese—not Jack—and queso fresco, with its mellow, creamy flavor and texture that complements spicy foods. It's made with a little egg batter, pan fried and then covered with a housemade red sauce with tomatoes, onion, bell peppers and Mexican spices. It lived up to my friend’s boast.
Estella wanted me to try the camarones a la diabla ($10.99). These were shrimp about the size of a 50 cent piece cooked in a spicy red sauce and served with white rice and beans. She uses a Japanese dark red pepper, and roasts it, then chops it, and cooks it down with tomato and other spices to create a sauce with a nice bit of heat. The zip carried through my mouth and hung on to remind me why the word diabla describes the dish—devilishly hot.
Menudo ($6.99), sopa ($7.99), and tamales Salvadoreños ($1.50) are offered on the weekends.
I had a couple of other Salvadoran treats. Platanos ($5.49) are similar to bananas and are used specifically as a sweet treat. This fruit was simply pan-fried with a little oil, and the natural sugar caused the outside to create a caramelized crust yielding a warm, soft banana flavor inside, nice finish to the meal.
Next came a bebida ($2.75), a berry drink. This one was actually more of a fruit drink. It had fresh everything: pineapple, cantaloupe, apple, watermelon, and cashew apples. Cashew apples go by the Spanish name marañón, and they can be made into juices, jams, and even a liqueur called fenny.
All these fruits are put into a blender with water, liquefied and then little chopped pieces of each fruit float on top. It was a meal in itself and extremely refreshing—not to mention the vitamins and fiber you get with drink. They offer plenty of other soft drinks ($1.75): Horchata—cinnamon rice milk—Jarritos, Mexican Coke and Pepsi—these are made with sugar instead of corn syrup—as well as two domestic ($2.50) and three Mexican bottled beers ($3) plus Regia ($6.50) beer from El Salvador.
There was a steady stream of folks in and out while we were there, and everyone seemed to know everyone. The true neighborhood restaurant is frequented and treasured by locals. It feels essential to the fabric and soul of the area. That’s what the Figueroas wanted, and it feels like that’s what they have.