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More than Pupusas at Uptown Salvadoran

Our Man finds the "entire peasant diet of El Salvador" in Washington Heights

The sign says Rincon Centro-americano ("Central American Corner"). It's part of a halfhearted attempt on the part of the restaurant otherwise known as El Salvadoreno to present itself as a pan-continental establishment. Baked goods like pineapple empanadas and Salvadoran quesadillas—quite unlike Mexican quesadillas—are offered in a glass case on the long Formica counter. One wall is painted with colorful outline maps of Central American countries: Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, and Costa Rica. Though not actually part of Central America, Mexico is pictured, too—it fits the theme of regional conquest.

The inner sanctum is another story, lined with eye-level mirrors and a massive detailed map of El Salvador alone. The room is regimented with dozens of tables, needed to accommodate the extended families that flood the room on weekends. Coldly lit with blue neon, these tables sport checked tablecloths and plastic jugs of curtido—a vinegary, beet-colored slaw that constitutes the principal Salvadoran condiment. At the end of the dining room, a red-tile roof overhang—intended to suggest a rural village—is littered with items invested with symbolic significance: plastic crabs entangled in fish nets, a taxidermied animal that a friend swore was a mongoose, and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, a ghost of Christmases past.

Using the plastic knife, slit a pupusa, spread it open like an empty wallet, and spoon in the curtido. Pupusas ($1.50 to $2 each) are hand-patted pancakes stuffed with your choice of cheese, ground pork, cheese and ground pork, shrimp and cheese, or cheese and loroco, the latter a pickled herbal cousin of oregano. I don't much like the shrimp version (lumpy and bland), but the rest are excellent, delivering a comforting creaminess that functions nicely with the crunchy whiplash of curtido.

El Salvadoreno tries its best to include all of Central America
El Salvadoreno tries its best to include all of Central America

Rather obtusely marked "Appetizers," the section in which the pupusas occur includes the entire peasant diet of El Salvador. There you'll find the national dish of yuca con chicharron ($4.75), a sagging platter of the perfectly fried tuber, whose unexpected lightness puts french fries to shame, topped with an insulating layer of curtido, then smothered with deep-fried pork chunks. It's a formidable tuck-in, almost enough for two. It hardly qualifies as an appetizer.

Also included are Salvadoran enchiladas, which are like Mexican tostados, and Salvadoran tacos, which are like Mexican flautas, illustrating the odd shift of dish definitions between Mexico and Central America. The tubular fried tacos ($2) come engulfed in crema and light tomato sauce, which mix like great rivers converging into a single channel. Your choices are limited to beef or chicken, and either filling comes mixed with potatoes for extra carbohydrate goodness. Tamals ($2) are tamales wrapped in banana leaves. They're moist and maybe a little too sweet, whether you pick chicken, pork, or corn. The latter doesn't really have a filling, but comes studded with yellow kernels barely discernible in the yellow matrix of the tamal.

Also among appetizers are several complete breakfasts ($7.50), which represent one of the menu's occasional attempts to include other Central American cuisines in its purview. The desayuno chapin ($7), referring to Guatemalans by their nickname, consists of a pair of poached eggs in plain tomato sauce, a boxcar of tangy white cheese something like feta, refried beans, a slice of avocado, and a flour tortilla wrapped around beans. When I tried the Honduran breakfast a few days later, it turned out to be exactly the same thing, minus the flour tortilla with beans, and for the same price.

The rest of the menu divides into sections of beef, pork, chicken, seafood, and combinations of the first three. Many of these choices might be found in nearly any Latin American country, including steak with onions, shrimp ceviche, and denuded chicken breast indifferently stuffed and sauced. Rather, turn to the soups, which constitute full meals in themselves. My favorites are the tripe ($5, translated "tribe"), which arrives so yellow with turmeric it almost glows, and caracol, an oft-times special that features cubes of canned conch.

And what about the quesadillas? As far as the glass case in the front room is concerned, a quesadilla is a moist manioc cake that's eaten for a snack or dessert. Put one together with a Mexican quesadilla, and you've got a complete meal.

 
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