"Pupusas are like little hugs from a happy, highly glycemic god" - @TheMadameMeow via Twitter
A few weeks ago, I was watching Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and Guy Fieri was going on and on about how the pupusas from the featured Salvadoran restaurant were "off the chain" as he likes to say. My interest was piqued.
I had heard about pupusas before but never had the opportunity to try one. Pupusas are a traditional dish from El Salvador made from thick corn or rice patties stuffed with various fillings such as ground pork, cheese, beans or loroco (a vine flour native to Central America) then griddled on a flat top. They are eaten customarily by hand with a pickled cabbage relish or salad called curtido. I googled "El Salvadoran restaurants Chicago" and sent out for advice on Twitter and came up with a list of restaurants to visit that afternoon.
Here are the photographs from our pupusa adventures. Enjoy!
First up was Pupuseria Cafe Frida in Rogers Park
Cafe Frida is a charming & bright cafe where I believe the man who took care of us was also the owner.
Cafe Frida offers a variety of fresh squeezed juices but we opted for the traditional atol de elote on the right and atol de platano (a warm banana drink) on the left. Atol de alote is a sweetened corn drink that reminded me a bit of creamy corn soup but sweeter.
In addition to the pupusas, we ordered two variations on tamales. In the husk is the tamales de elote with crema. This is a sweet corn tamale with a soft almost cake like texture. In the foreground is the much more savory and very moist tamales de gallina - corn masa stuffed with shredded chicken & chunks of potatoes and then steamed in a banana leaf.
Here is the ubiquitous but delicious tangy cabbage salad called curtido and the two types of customary sauces. The red one called Salsa Roja is tomato based and not very spicy. The green one had a bit more kick to it.
And for the main event, we ordered three pupusas - chicharron (ground pork), loroco and revueltas (combo of refried beans, chicharron & cheese).
An upclose shot of the pupusas revueltas with the curtido. The tortilla was much thicker than I anticipated and I expected the cheese to be more "melty" but considering this was my first pupusa experience, I didn't have anything to compare it to. Overall, we enjoyed our time at Cafe Frida.
Pupusas on the griddle. In my research of pupusas, I read in an article that in Salvadoran culture, men will talk about pupusas but only women actually make them. Not sure if this is true but each place we went to, a woman was behind the grill. The sound of making pupusas is a distinct clap, clap, clap as the ladies pass balls of stuffed dough from hand to hand to form them into flat cakes.
Up next was Buen Sabor at 4911 N Western Avenue
This is a tiny, five or six table restaurant on Western Avenue. If you go during the day, be sure to check out the cool antique store across the street.
I ordered their atol de elote for comparison and I liked it much better as it wasn't as sweet as the Cafe Frida version and I could tell they used fresh/frozen corn as opposed to just creamed corn. Their curtido was by far my favorite out of all the restaurants we went to. It had more oregano and the acidity was much brighter. The next time I make bbq, I going to make a batch of curtido as I think it would be a wonderful condiment for pulled pork sandwiches, etc.
The tamales de gallina was as Guy Fieri would say "off the chain". So good!
For pupusas at Buen Sabor we ordered the jalapeno and queso and the revueltas. As you can see, they have a much thinner texture than the ones at Cafe Frida and they were not as crumbly. There's also a bit of cheese oozing out which is never a bad thing.
A close up of the revueltas. The texture of the Buen Sabor pupusas made them easier to hold in your hand. If these are how pupusas are meant to be then sign me up for life!
We also ordered the empanadas de frijoles - deep fried mashed plantains stuffed with beans. They're usually rolled in sugar but here they were not. A little too greasy for my taste and I didn't like the texture of the mashed plantains. You can also get them cream filled - maybe these are better.
Next on the docket was Cuscatleco on West Lawrence
This was the biggest pupuseria we visited thus far and the most crowded - probably due to the fact that it was later in the day.
We also began to notice a pattern of national pride with each place displaying photographs of El Salvador and the flag throughout the restaurant, especially on the menu. I've never been to El Salvador but it sure looks beautiful!
If you excuse Charles' head, you can get a feel for the ambience and decor.
Once again, we ordered Tamales de Gallina which by now had become a personal favorite and the Cuscatleco version did not dissapoint.
Cuscatleco was the first place where we encountered pupusas made from rice flour which is on the left. They had a slightly chewier texture than the corn version which is on the right. Both pupusas were good but so far the Buen Sabor pupusas were my favorite overall
As you can imagine by this point we had turned into little pupusas ourselves and were beyond stuffed. We waved the white flag, headed home and decided to continue our pupusa adventures the following day.
The plan was to get up early on Sunday to head to the Maxwell Street Market to visit Mama Lula who sells from what I heard really good pupusas from her stand. We couldn't get our act together in time, probably because we were so fulll from the previous day so sadly, our research project did not include her pupusas.
But we did go to El Salvador Restaurant at 4125 South Archer Ave and it was delicious!
Another colorful menu bursting with national pride!
When we walked in, all the tables were filled but we took a walk around the block for about 10 minutes and were greeted with an open table upon our return. Charming but no frills decor and I was rather intrigued by the formal dining room/hotel/office chairs.
The pupusa revueltas from El Salvador restaurant. Sturdy enough to eat with your hands but the texture was still delicate.
El Salvador Restaurant also offered rice pupusas which were excellent. We chose one stuffed with cheese and jalapenos.
The two salsas at El Salvador came in squeeze bottles.
This is the panes con pavo - a traditional sandwich made from marinated turkey. It was a bit messy to eat but quite enjoyable. It reminded me a little of cochinita pibil.
Mmm...fried yucca! My mother used to make fried yucca when I was a child and El Salvador's version was as good if not better than my mom's. If you like french fries, you'll love fried yucca. The fried yucca came as part of a combo platter with bits of fried pork (chicharron), sweet plantains, tamales de gallina (of course!) and pasteles (almost like a deep fried corn tamale). I would go back to El Salvador restaurant just for the fried yucca!
And our final stop on our pupuseria adventure tour was Izalco on 26th Street
This was the first restaurant that offered Kolashanpan soda from El Salvador. It has a sweet orange and slightly bitter flavor that reminded me of Aperol. I bet it would be really good in a cocktail for the summer! Their salsa verde was the best out of all the restaurants we visited.
The pupusas were pretty good - a bit on the thicker side and slightly greasy but the fillings (revueltas & cheese) were seasoned well.
The pasteles at Izalco were excellent - crunchy on the outside with a delicious filling!
Having had such a positive experience with the yucca at El Salvador restaurant, I wanted more so we decided to order something unique along with it. These are deep fried tiny fish with a pronounced briny, salty flavor which I really enjoyed. The fried yucca on the other hand was a total dissapointment - soggy and not crispy at all. There were other Salvadoran dishes that we were tempted by including sopa de pata but maybe on future visits.
In conclusion - we learned a great deal about pupusas and have decided that on the North Side we liked Buen Sabor the best and on the South Side, El Salvador would be declared the handsdown winner.
Maybe for my next pupusa adventure, I'll learn how to make them myself!