Hot off the griddle
Las Pupusas Restaurant1901 El Camino Ave.
Sacramento, CA 95815
A good pupusa may look humble, but it’s really a thing of beauty. Hot and a little crusty on the outside, with an exterior of blistered and toasted fresh masa, and gooey cheese with other fillings within, they’re totally simple and totally delicious. The only problem is that they can be a little hard to find. When I used to live near San Francisco’s Mission District, they were everywhere, but here in Sacramento, not so much.
I’ve heard tell of them in Del Paso Heights, but it wasn’t until I exited the freeway at the unpromising El Camino exit (on my way to shop the fall patio-furniture sales) that I spotted the aptly named Las Pupusas. It’s taken over the space that used to be Xochimilco, offering Mexican and Salvadorean food.
The restaurant space hasn’t changed much. There’s a new sign (though not all the old ones have been taken down) and some Central American decorations: a big poster of pupusa-makers at a market, framed prints of money from Guatemala and El Salvador. Colorfully painted wooden letters spell out the name of the restaurant, and, in the rather haphazardly arranged kitchen, we could see a white board where kids had written “We love you Mom”—one of the signs that this is a small family venture.
It’s so small, in fact, that service is rather slow. There was one woman out front acting as host and server, and (we think) someone else cooking in back. At first, I thought the server (who also seems to be the owner) was rather taciturn, but as I was paying and leaving she warmed up and confided the reason for seeming a bit distracted: A family emergency was forcing her to close early that evening.
To be fair, slowness is something I’ve experienced every time I’ve ever ordered a pupusa. They’re made to order (an old pupusa is a bad pupusa), and take a little time. Pupusas are perfectly accessible kid food, so we ordered a simple one with zucchini and cheese for our daughter. I chose the “typical plate” from the Salvadorean section of the menu. It included pasteles de puerco y vegetables (a fried mixed-vegetable pie), fried plantains, fried yuca, and a pupusa revuelta stuffed with refried beans, chicharron and cheese. This pretty much covered the Salvadorean options, though you could get pupusas stuffed with different things, such as loroco (a Central American flower) and cheese, or a “tamale Salvadoreno.”
As we waited, we snacked on the nice thick, fresh chips and an earthy, spicy salsa. The simple zucchini-and-cheese pupusa arrived first, with a big bowl of curtido (cabbage relish) alongside. I wished the latter had been zingier. Its pickled flavor was shy, but the fresh crunch was a nice counterpart to melted cheese. I loved the bits of cheese that had escaped and caramelized on the griddle, too. (Oh, and my daughter happily ate some of it too.)
My pupusa revuelta was more savory and filling, with its rich pork-and-beans filling. The entire “typical plate” was excellent, with a tumble of the curtido and some fresh ripe-tomato salsa over impeccably fried yuca—crunchy on the outside and floury within—and the fried plantains. Those were a little oily and soft, but I’m not a big plantain fan anyway. The whole thing was topped with shards of fried pork. The little handheld pie, with its crunchy masa crust, had a wide range of veggies inside. It was incredibly rich. There was no way could I have finished it, but it was a dinner I’d go back for.
While we were trying the Salvadorean fare, my husband explored the longer Mexican portion of the menu, which had an old-school combo-plate vibe: enchiladas, fried tacos, rice and beans, and so on. His combo featured a beef taco with a slightly greasy shell, but nice fresh guacamole and a tasty shredded-beef filling; a chile relleno that was undistinguished but not bad; and a beef enchilada with an insipid red sauce. The refried beans, which our daughter wolfed down, were clearly rich in some sort of pork fat, rendering them quite delicious.
That said, it’s clear that this restaurant’s heart is not really in the Mexican food. The combined menu reminds me of those Asian restaurants that advertise as “Chinese-Vietnamese” or “Chinese-Laotian” or whatever, where the Chinese portion of the menu is full of sweet-and-sour sauces and sops to the presumably timid American clientele, whereas the more adventurous choices are found in the less-familiar ethnic cuisine. It’s a familiar formula, and the best way to handle it is to simply ignore the Americanized portion of the menu and go straight to whatever the owners really seem to want to make.
Las Pupusas is low on atmosphere and charm. Its location is, to say the least, unpromising. And the Mexican food part of the menu is somewhat less than appealing. But if what you want is a big bunch of super-cheap, delicious, cheese-oozing pupusas, or a great big plate of other Salvadorean food, get on over there and overlook everything else. You’ll be glad you did.