During the first decade of the 21st century, New York’s population of foreign-born Salvadorans zoomed to 40,000, making them our 11th largest immigrant group. Jamaica, Queens, constitutes the center of this community, accounting for a half-dozen Salvadoran restaurants ringing downtown Jamaica—a metropolis unto itself, complete with skyscrapers. Several friends and I recently set out on a pupusa run, in order to make a comparison of the floppy stuffed pancakes at all six restaurants. We nearly succeeded.
The pupusa is the heart of El Salvador’s cuisine—a hand-patted dough envelope three to four inches in diameter, with a limited range of fillings that include white cheese, crushed pork, puréed beans, and loroco—the unopened flower buds of the herbaceous vine Fernaldia pandurata. Some say it tastes like oregano, others say thyme, but there is a distinctly floral edge to the flavor. Calling them “pipil pupusawa,” Pipil Indians invented them three millennia ago, but these tasty miniature Frisbees remained confined to the rural areas of El Salvador until the 1950s. Though most Salvadoran restaurants serve pre-fab pupusas, the very best are still those that are made fresh when you order them.
To burn off some calories, we resolved to proceed on foot despite the frigid weather, and determined to sample other Salvadoran specialties along the way. We started out at Dona Mari Restaurant, a tiny place that displays colorful menu photos in the window. The café was chilly, and an old man was posted inside the front door, closing it tightly with his cane every time a customer entered. Configured like Mexican tostadas, the chicken enchiladas (three for $8) achieved excellence, prettily topped with lettuce, tomatoes, and a boiled egg. The four pupusas offered ($2 each) didn’t taste very fresh, and only scored an “acceptable” rating. They came accompanied by curtido, a tart cabbage slaw that garnishes most Salvadoran snacks. (Slit open the pupusa, and spoon in the curtido!)
A couple of blocks west, we stumbled on El Comal (“The Griddle”), which styles itself a pupuseria. The place is divided into a kitchen, flaunting a very seductive steam table, and an unadorned dining room. A receptacle of raw masa dough next to the griddle instantly caught our attention, suggesting that the pupusas would be freshly made. Soon, we heard the slap, slap, slap of palms on dough, the golden melody of the pupusa. At $1.75 each, these were somewhat larger than usual, and took a full 15 minutes to cook on the comal. The “revueltas” (cheese and pork) proved the tastiest, the cheese providing a gooey counterpoint to the finely pounded pork. But we were soon distracted by a batch of fried chicken ($4) that appeared on the steam table. It had been marinated in vinegar prior to frying, and was the best we’d tasted in a long while.
Skirting King Park, which features an 1805 white manor house that looks ridiculous in its contemporary urban context, we hit Jamaica Avenue and immediately encountered two Salvadoran restaurants on a single block. Rincon Salvadoreno occupies a hulking corner space decorated with plastic fruit. Founded in 1980, it claims to be the first Salvadoran restaurant in town. For no apparent reason, a life-size gilded baby elephant stands inside the front door. The corn tamales ($6) were amazing, two kernel-studded masa cylinders offered with string cheese and crema. While the pupusas didn’t quite match those at El Comal, they tasted homemade. Of the seven varieties offered, the beef version is unique, though not particularly memorable.
Two doors down, El Que Bueno is more intimate, but also more brightly lit. We found its yuca con chicharrón ($7) excellent, crisp tidbits of pork tossed with creamy fried yuca. The loroco-and-cheese pupusas were pleasantly creamy, but our favorite was the porky chicharrón pupusa. A few blocks west perches the modestly named El OK Restaurante Salvadoreno, with a grocery in the front and a diner-like space in back. Upon opening the menu, we were excited to discover that the place makes rice pupusas, in addition to the usual maize ones, a real rarity. Unfortunately, the rice pupusas were on the tough side.
Our sixth pupusa-slinging establishment was to be Vina del Mar (“Vineyard of the Sea”), a pupuseria enthusiastically recommended by SeriousEats.com. Unfortunately, the shutters were pulled down and the phone disconnected. Shivering on the sidewalk, we secretly breathed a sigh of relief that we didn’t have to bolt down any more pupusas that day.
A photo diary of our pupusa run appears on the Fork in the Road blog