Love for Salvadorian

Chef Leo Hernandez and owner David Arevalo of Bistro Habanero present a stacked quesadilla and a suizo burrito.

Chef Leo Hernandez and owner David Arevalo of Bistro Habanero present a stacked quesadilla and a suizo burrito.

Photo/Allison Young

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Not many of us can imagine leaving the place of our birth because a civil war threatened our very existence; David Arevalo can. He fled Sonsonate, El Salvador, in 1990 and landed in Reno. Now he’s living the American dream, owning this small eatery and cherishing every moment. Since arriving in U.S., he’s worked in the food service industry and construction, and now is a restaurateur.

He built this 22-seat space remembering what his mother’s home and kitchen looked like back in his birth-land. Rippled tin, a terracotta tile awning, and re-used wood tables make it real and sincere. He and his staff serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the menu ($1-$8.99) is a combination of Mexican and traditional El Salvadorian cuisine. The cuisine of this Central American country really came to the forefront in this country because of the significant influx of Salvadorians to the U.S. during that country’s civil war in the 1980s.

Everything is made when ordered. The recipes are original, and everything is housemade, something Arevalo assured with proud enthusiasm. Tortilla soup ($2.99 cup-$4.99) caught my eye. With a fish stock, fresh vegetables, chicken pieces and crisp corn strips, it was subtle with a slightly savory-spicy flavor that make me think “mm-mm good” but not too bold for my taste buds.

I’m always looking for a good fish taco ($1.99 each), and I tried both deep fried and grilled. My standard-of-measure is based on what I get on the docks in Cabo, a must when off the tip of Baja. Both were served with a mango salsa on doubled, six-inch soft corn taco shells.

The mango salsa, with a little cilantro, red onion, lime juice and chopped tomato, was mildly spiced. Most Salvadorian dished are not heavily spiced, and many seasoning profiles have a slight sweetness. I’ll take the grilled fish, just my preference, but the deep fried had a Corona beer batter and both had plenty of flavor savory with a hint of sweet.

I saw homemade Salvadorian tamales ($1.99) wrapped in a banana leaf. These are made using corn flour. I had a chicken tamale, and it was surrounded by a smooth textured corn-flavored roll with savory meat in the middle atop the banana leaf, adding a hint of sweetness.

You may notice the prices seem very modest, and that’s because a lot of the servings are small, and that’s a good thing. It gives you a chance to try many things without overeating.

The real treat came with the traditional Salvadorian pupusas ($1 each). A pupusa is a dish made of a thick, handmade corn tortilla using masa de maíz, corn dough made from hominy. These were about six inches in diameter with your choice of fillings such as pork, bean, cheese, zucchini, spinach or Loroco flower. Loroco flower has a distinctive taste, a highly aromatic, earthy, artichoke-like flavor with overtones of nuts.

Pupusas are traditionally served with curtido, a pickled cabbage relish, analogous to German sauerkraut and Korean kimchi that comes in mild and spicy varieties, this was a bit spicy, since jalapenos were used. These are served all day. I went with rebuelta (pork, beans and rice) and queso con calabaza (cheese and zucchini). There is a tomato sauce for dipping, and again, not over powering in flavor rather a slightly acidic complement. Attention foodies, put this on your “must try” list. They were delicious, with exceptional savory flavor profiles true to the stuffing ingredients.

They’re still waiting for a beer and wine license, so soft drinks including Jarrito are offered. This is more than a story about food; it’s a story of one immigrant’s belief that America is the land of opportunity. Pull up a chair and prove him right.