Pupusa love

Taqueria and Pupuseria Isabel

3071 Freeport Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95818

(916) 273-7448

I’ve been a fan of the pupusa for a while, but in the Sacramento area getting them requires a bit of a drive. Plus, I’ve never encountered quick service in a pupuseria; they are a food that must be served immediately and seem to be made to order. Even though the little Salvadoran patties of masa and cheese, which are either a pillowy version of a quesadilla or, perhaps, El Salvador’s answer to the calzone, are quick to eat, you need to have a leisurely approach to your meal.

Taqueria and Pupuseria Isabel, which occupies a prime spot across the street from McClatchy High School, solves the problem of a longish drive to an unfamiliar neighborhood to lay your hands on a pupusa, but it doesn’t remedy the second. The wait for food is still very long, unless you order solely from the Mexican rather than the Salvadoran portion of the menu.

It’s not an unpleasant place to hang out, though the new-ish space still seems to be undergoing some renovations on its upstairs catwalk. Flower-patterned sailcloths with a slight Asian look hang from the ceiling (possibly hangers-on, as it were, from the space’s last tenant, which I believe was an Indonesian restaurant), exposed brick is complemented by goldenrod paint on the other walls, the tables and chairs are handsome, and there’s even a couch. Still, the space is a little bit barn-like and under-populated—except, on our visits, for gaggles of teenagers using the computers on one wall and scarfing down burritos. Hey, I said across the street from McClatchy is a prime location, didn’t I?

The guy working the counter, who is also the guy who delivers your food and drinks and for all I know may also be on the one making the pupusas (I never saw anyone else working there, except for the painter upstairs) is friendly and accommodating, if a little shy. The first thing to arrive at the table is a basket of chips and it’s a good start. They are thick cut and taste like they’re fried in-house, with a fresh, true corn flavor that complements the thin, tart, bright green salsa that comes with them. Next come the drinks: They make a couple of kinds of aguas frescas, and I enjoyed the sweet-tart, flowery jamaica (hibiscus).

As mentioned, there’s a Mexican and a Salvadoran menu. The latter includes pasteles, little half-moon-shaped fried-beef pies, brightly golden-orange in color and stuffed with a savory beef mixture—as well as tamales, fried yuca, and, of course, the pupusas. The Mexican menu has flautas, tacos with various meat choices (carnitas, al pastor, and the like), burritos, and so on. There’s also a breakfast menu, with both traditional American and Latin American items, though I did not try anything on it.

On one visit, we sampled the flautas with chicken. The crisp tortilla shell, fresh from the fryer, had the same thick, snappy, toasty crunch as the chips. The filling was a tiny bit bland, but it came with plenty of fresh, thick, cold guacamole, lettuce, and sour cream. We also had a red salsa—thin, like the green salsa, but much hotter—that was perfect for dipping and solved any problem of too-mild flavor … and then some. Like the other dinner plates, it came with beans (refried or whole—both were flavorful—the refried a bit thin) and fluffy rice on the side.

I also tried out the Salvadoran tamale, steamed in a banana leaf, which imparts a dusky, herbaceous note to it. Here, the masa was more tender than in more familiar Mexican-style tamales. It was almost custardy, and studded with cubes of starchy vegetable (whether yuca or potato I couldn’t be sure) and pieces of chicken. It, again, was on the bland side, but it seemed to be all about the texture. Dressing it up with salsa helped the flavor a lot.

Not surprisingly, I liked the pupusas here the best. The masa was tender but with a crusty exterior; the cheese was melty and stringy and, in the case of one of them, infused throughout with bits of green, herbal loroco, an edible flower indigenous to Central America. I also tried one with bits of roasty, flavorful pork (that is, chicharron) and beans. The two pupusas—each about the size of a smallish English muffin, but much more satisfying—also come with my favorite bit of the meal: curtido, a cabbage relish that at Taqueria and Pupuseria Isabel is tangy, crunchy, very fresh-tasting, and quite hot, lending a meal of what is essentially cheese and starch a slightly less leaden feel.

Still, lean cuisine this ain’t, and so pupusas are perhaps not for every day, unless you have the good fortune to have the metabolism of a high-school kid. But they’re an awfully tasty treat, made to order and oozing with cheese and other fillings, and they’re now available tantalizingly close to downtown. Go sometime, when you’re not in a rush, and enjoy.