It's one of the finer flavor combinations available in today's flooded market. A ball of fresh cornmeal dough is stuffed with soft cheese, shredded pork, refried beans, or some combination of the above, then flattened into a thick disc. (Sometimes loroco, a tangy Salvadoran vine flower not unlike the nasturtium, is tossed in for good measure.) The patty is cooked over a hot griddle until it's hot and fragrant and just a little charred and smoky, then slipped onto a platter and served with two accompaniments: a salsa roja of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and peppers; and curtido, a pungent quasi-kimchi of pickled cabbage, carrots, citrus, and spice. Drizzle some salsa over the corn cake, add a spoonful of edgy, snarky slaw, and dig in: a hot, rich, lush, sharp, crunchy, spicy fandango of pillowy dough, molten cheese, and, if the planets are properly aligned, utter gustatory satisfaction.
Despite its recent celebrity, there's nothing new about the pupusa: The Pipil of El Salvador have been making these savory, rib-sticking noshes for a good two thousand years. (Among the treasures unearthed at Joya de Cerén, a perfectly preserved Mayan archaeological site near San Juan Opico, were pupusa-making implements and utensils.) Like the Mexican tamale, the Venezuelan hallaca, and the Colombian arepa, the pupusa employs corn, the Western hemisphere's outstanding grain, as the casing for a host of tasty fillings. But as recently as a half a century ago, pupusas were still a largely regional Salvadoran delicacy, as little known to the outside world as the tamale was globally renowned. Then, in the 1980s, a wave of émigrés fleeing the El Salvador civil war brought their culture and kitchen skills to Mexico, the U.S., and points north, and the pupusa attained its rightful place as a widely devoured culinary treat.
The Mission District, bastion of pan-Latin cookery, is a particularly fruitful destination when you're in the mood for some loroco-laced sustenance. But at least two dozen pupuserias, restaurants, bakeries, and taquerias in the Excelsior, Inner Mission, Outer Mission, and Potrero Hill prepare and serve pupusas of varying girth and quality, enough to make the San Salvador treat nearly as ubiquitous hereabouts as the taco and the burrito. But unlike those quickly assembled snack items, pupusas are not what you might call fast food. Each is fashioned by hand and to order, and part of the whole experience is watching the lady behind the counter stuffing and slapping the hell out of your very own pupusa. In addition to being a handcrafted, edible delicacy, pupusas are cheap and filling (generally $2-$2.50 apiece), and they're often available deep into the wee hours, when you really need them — many local pupuserias are open until 3 or 4 in the morning. For all of these reasons, and in honor and anticipation of National Pupusa Day (November 13), we decided to check out some of the honorees' outstanding local outlets.
El Zócalo is a good place to start. The cozy proletariat setting is ideal for late-night high-protein scarfing, and the pupusas ($1.90 each) are exemplary. The chicharron (shredded pork) is like a good carnitas torta, bursting with luscious texture and peppery oomph, and the loroco-queso variety is a creamy, hearty, tartly accented delight. The traditional accompaniments are also top-notch: The chunky salsa roja has a nice afterkick, and the curtido is crisp, bracing, and pleasantly pungent.
One of the Mission's newest pupusa venues is El Balazo, one in a chain of Mexican restaurants that serves the Salvadoran specialty alongside a standard menu of tostadas, enchiladas, and burritos. Any restaurant with a Web site, an 800 number, and outlets in Concord, Danville, Pleasanton, and San Ramon is worthy of careful scrutiny, and El Balazo met all expectations. The curtido was crisp, fresh, healthy, and bland; the salsa roja was smooth, thick, and absolutely flavorless. And the house pupusa (two for $5) had no particular flavor, just an inoffensive texture of pulverized, generic ingredients.
By contrast, Antojitos Salvadorenos Aminta, tucked away in the Mission Market mall alongside a beauty salon, a vegetable market, and a taqueria, is like a little bit of the old country in nippy S.F., with Christmas lights, fake parrots, colorful textiles, and other folklorico decorating a central open kitchen flanked with tables and counter seating. The house curtido is brisk, refreshing, and surprisingly sultry; the salsa roja is respectably spicy, if a bit thin-bodied; and the squash pupusa (two for $4) is like a lusty, handheld quiche Lorraine, oozing with cheese and plenty of chopped-up zucchini.
The best thing about La Santaneca de la Mission is its sour, sneakily incendiary curtido and the peppery, scallion-ribboned salsa roja that goes with it. It's therefore surprising how pizzazz-free the house pupusas are ($1.75-$2.50 each). The masa just sits there, the shredded pork is dried-out and bland, and the refried beans have a dense, chalky, pasty consistency. But the loroco-queso variation makes an absolutely satisfying grilled cheese sandwich: rich, lusty, and dripping with oil.
El Patio also puts together a fine salsa roja, rich and potent with minced chiles, but the curtido isn't much more than platter-filler, lacking the signature verve that makes this slaw such a fine contrast and/or complement to the pupusa's rich texture. As it turns out, there isn't much more to El Patio's pupusas ($1.95 each) than texture, the texture of a thick, unseasoned tortilla with a bare minimum of filling and flavor. Terrific adobe-and-wrought-iron south-of-the-border setting, though.
Los Panchos, a colorfully decorated Mission hangout, slaps together an especially fine chicharron pupusa ($2 each); the shredded pork is rich and hearty, and mingles deliciously with the melting queso blanco. The plain queso pupusa isn't as successful, however, and the house curtido is without merit: bland, chewy, watery, and flavorless.
The curtido at Balompié, by contrast, is terrific, a bright, citrusy tangle of cabbage, carrot, and spice. It's an ideal match for what may be the city's most corpulent and pillowy pupusas ($2.25 each). The chicharron is robust, spicy, and ribboned with loroco; the camarón features big chunks of plump pink prawns and oozing cheese; the vegetariano is verdant with corn kernels and zucchini slivers. There's even a surprisingly simpatico Italian version with shards of prosciutto and sweet earthy basil, a light and lovely variation on calzone. They come with a deep, smoky salsa roja and a bowl of crisp, ultraspicy pickled carrots, onions, cauliflower, and jalapeños — splendid accents for this up-and-coming millennia-old taste treat.