Great Balls of Masa

Stuffed with cheese or pork, hand-patted, then cooked to speckled brownness on the griddle, pupusas are one of the great comfort foods. These uniquely Salvadoran masa pancakes get their name from a Nahuatl Indian expression meaning "swollen tortilla." At Sunset Park's Usuluteco, queso is best, oozing ropes of white cheese flecked with green loroco flowers, rescued from mellowness by curtido, a zany cabbage relish flavored with oregano and tinted beet-juice pink. Heap it on top or, as real aficionados do, slit the pupusa ($1.25) and insert the slaw. Bet you can't eat just one.

At two on weekday afternoons the restaurant floods with campesinos, who sit singly taking their afternoon bowl of soup with a pupusa or two. They keep one eye on the Mexican soaps, while the jukebox blares tragic love songs. The chicken soup ($4) is particularly good, boldly flavored with garlic and cilantro, bustling with carrot, potato, chayote, and stray strands of spaghetti. Evenings and weekends see families thronged around the festive, red-clothed tables adorned with vases of artificial flowers. Eye-level mirrors follow the contour of the walls, so you can discreetly check out fellow diners, or contemplate the back of your own head.

One popular dish is salpicón ($8.50), a salad of coarsely chopped beef, chewy as hell, tossed with finely diced radishes, onions, and cilantro and tweaked deliciously with a squeeze of lemon juice. Sided with clumpy yellow rice, it makes a wonderful shared appetizer. Another is yuca frita con chicharron ($6), a national passion featuring chunks of pork rubbed with garlic and fried to a concentrated porkiness, tossed with yuca cooked like french fries, cloud-fluffy in the middle. This assemblage also comes heaped with curtido.

Most main courses, however, are unremarkable—decent renditions of pan-Latin classics along the lines of steak and onions, shrimp with garlic sauce, and deep-fried pork chops. A couple of tastier exceptions are mojarra frita ($10), a spiny fish whose ugly appearance conceals a wealth of tender flesh (order it instead of the pricier red snapper), and carne asada ($8.50), a herd of thin-sliced beefsteaks pummeled into near-tenderness and cooked with scads of garlic. Skip the desiccated pincho de res, a lonely beef shish kebab that will leave you dreaming of your favorite Turkish joint. The chile relleno, steamed where its Mexican counterpart is fried, arrives with the vegetable- dotted meat stuffing scattered on the plate. It tastes good anyway. Entrées come with a pair of sides, chosen from a list containing the usual (rice, beans, tostones, green plantains, salad) and the unusual: casamiento, an amalgam of rice and black beans resembling mud, or crema y papas fritas, french fries smothered in thin sour cream that might be good if the fries were.

It's also easy to make a meal of antojitos, snacks usually based on masa. The Salvadoran enchiladas (two for $4) are like Mexican tostadas, with meat and roughage piled high on a crisp tortilla avalanched in crema. Pasteles are chicken or pork empanadas with a masa crust. Cebiche de camarones ($8.50) would be more cevichelike if the shrimp weren't precooked, but is great nonetheless. Best of all, tamales de elote ($3) turns out to be a pair of steamed cylinders of mashed sweet corn, one end sunk in a pool of crema. Close your eyes and take a bite, and you'll feel like you're chomping down on an ear of corn at the height of the season.

Use Current Location

Related Location


4017 Fifth Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11232


Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >