Pockets of cheese
Sacramento, CA 95824
What could be more comforting than melted cheese on carbs? When it’s made by family. At El Izote, most of the staff is related.
On a recent visit, chef Silvia Pineda, originally from El Salvador by way of the Bay Area, slapped a ball of masa de maiz between her hands beside the grill. She accommodated last-second changes to orders with good humor. Next to her, a smiling face appeared in the form of the chef’s great-nephew, Douglas Pleitez, who served water from a plastic jug when the out-of-order soda dispenser didn’t even drip that most basic of beverages. Young relatives of the staff wandered around, dragging toys.
To work with family is “good and bad at the same time, but mostly good,” Pleitez said. “It’s your family; you want to impress them all the time.”
The restaurant clearly puts heart into its cooking as it adds to the handful of pupusa joints in Sacramento. Somewhat nearby, Las Palmas Carniceria Pupuseria y Taqueria in Florin features thicker tortillas than El Izote. In contrast, the restaurant in Avondale serves up compacted tortillas, which show off the richer, juicier ingredients that they envelop.
Though many of the meals are thoughtfully prepared, the pupusas ($2.99 for one, $8.25 for three) are the main draw. They resemble arepas, but are made of thick, nixtamalized corn—a process that amps up the flavor and nutritiousness by soaking and cooking the maize in an alkaline solution, then hulling it. Originally a vegetarian half-circle in pre-Columbian El Salvador, pupusas became meatier over time. Those on the menu at El Izote offer several hearty meatless and carnivorous selections.
Inside the squash and cheese pupusa, the diced vegetables melded together with the queso blanco in watery bursts. The stringy cheese came out piping hot and flavorful, surrounded by a sweet tortilla with grilled, golden speckles that concentrated the taste of the crumbly maize.
To break up the thickness of tortilla-on-cheese, spread on the fresh-tasting and lightly sour curtido, a kimchi-like blend of lettuce and carrots that have been fermented in vinegar. Each pupusa order will come with the side—a mound of veggies to soften the guilt of this comfort food.
You can also sample a lesser known plant called loroco, small edible flowers common throughout Central America. Folded into the pupusa, the green flecks resembled a mix between squash and cactus, with a hint of tea leaf flavor. The earthy plant broke up the soothing blandness of the creamy cheese.
For carnivores, the revuelta combined pork, beans and cheese into a gooey emulsion of delicious grease and umami flavor. The pupusa billowed to accommodate all the ingredients, and the beans and pork mixed to enhance the flavors of each—bean-y meat and meaty beans. The chicken and cheese fused tender threads of meat into the melted disc of queso.
Off the pupusa menu, the carne asada regular burrito ($5.99) came with the holy trinity of rice, beans and cheese. The beef itself was beautiful to look at, which might sound strange, but it’s true—the meat appeared and tasted expertly grilled. The rice was savory with broth and trapped a web of melted cheese throughout, and the tortilla itself was toasted just to the point of slight crispiness, a welcome deviation from the norm.
On the underwhelming side, the garlick-y shrimp taco combo ($11.99) was served with lukewarm shrimp that was tomato-y and mildly spicy. They came with thicker tortillas that seemed like an averaging between pupusas and the thinner standard, making the overall formation taste drier than most tacos.
That said, El Izote excels at its specialty. Weave around the cute kids and steer toward the pockets of cheesy comfort.