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.