One sister works the front of the house, overseeing a dining room that caters to a rainbow coalition of Latinos and University of Maryland undergrads looking to venture beyond their industrial dorm-room diet. Three other sisters can often be found in the kitchen, preparing the traditional Salvadoran dishes that comprise the backbone of Pupuseria La Familiar in College Park.
It’s tempting to label Maritza Hernandez, Raquel Hernandez, Nelly Hernandez and Elsy Carolina Claros the four sisters of local Salvadoran cooking, a nod to the four siblings who put a friendly face on Vietnamese cuisine for so many years. But aside from the fact that both quartets are blood relatives who work (or once worked) in the restaurant industry, the comparison falls a little flat.
The original four sisters are the children of hard-working Vietnamese immigrants, who sometimes drafted their kids into the hospitality business against their will. The siblings behind La Familiar, by contrast, actively pursued a life in the sometimes-otherworldly restaurant industry, with its unforgiving demands. Their Maryland pupuseria was designed as an homage to their mother, Emilia Cruz Lopez, who once ran an eatery in Cojutepeque, El Salvador, where the daughters learned to make those iconic Salvadoran snacks by hand.
Their homage, alas, unexpectedly turned into a memorial when their mother died in a car accident in October 2006, just months before the sisters opened La Familiar, says Danny Claros, husband of Elsy and a manager at the restaurant.
As a memorial to a mother and her skills as a Salvadoran cook, La Familiar is an unconventional one. It’s a classic pupuseria, dedicated to the flavors of El Salvador, but one willing to expand its menu into what you might call drunk-food territory — burritos, quesadillas and taquitos. In that sense, La Familiar is a new hybrid for the metro area: Sal-Col, a Salvadoran eatery that helps feed hungry college students, often when they need it most. You could argue that the eatery is downright maternal, in part because the sisters serve no alcohol, perhaps giving their customers time and space to fill up and sober up.
Sometimes these disparate cultures — the waste-nothing world of the immigrant, the getting-wasted world of the college student — collide on the same plate, as with an appetizer called “papitas locas.” It’s a messy, finger-food take on a popular pork-and-potatoes dish in Latin America known as papas locas or “crazy potatoes.” La Familiar’s version takes crazy to a whole new level. It’s a basket of fries (I’m guessing frozen from the shape and texture), topped with mayonnaise, ketchup and a generous shaving of hard Central American cheese. The sound you just heard? It’s a stampede of students thundering their way to La Familiar right this moment.
Personally, I prefer to carb load in more refined ways. I look no further than La Familiar’s menu of hand-made pupusas, prepared with your choice of corn or rice flour.
It was the latter option that intrigued me. Despite all the pupusas I’ve gobbled down over the years, I’ve never had one made with rice flour, a variation that apparently took root in city of Olocuilta in south-central El Salvador. You have to specifically ask for the pupusa de arroz, which I would encourage. The griddled rice-flour shell is both crispier and chewier than the masa version; it also serves as a more neutral canvas for the fillings, whether the humble bean-and-cheese combo or the mysterious Salvadoran flower bud called loroco, whose flavors are harder to pin down than a scandal-plagued politician.
The pupusas de arroz are more than a novelty, but they still don’t compare to La Familiar’s traditional corn-flour rounds, which are packed so tightly with filling that the thin masa walls threaten to rupture, spilling their guts all over the plate. But they don’t. The architectural structure holds almost (almost!) every time, an engineering feat that allows the charred corn flavor to accentuate the fillings (my favorites: the jalapeno-and-cheese combo and the pork-bean-cheese mixture known as revuelta) without dominating them. Even the pickled shredded-vegetable condiment known as curtido is muted and lightly spiced to emphasis the fillings.
What I respect about La Familiar is that the cooks exercise care with seemingly everything, no matter how far a dish wanders from their Salvadoran home. Take that lowly burrito I so flippantly described as drunk food. In La Familiar’s hands, the burrito is a tightly wrapped log stuffed with seasoned beef and a select few complementary fats and aromatics — the salt, cheese, onions and grill flavor making a persuasive case to win over a skeptical palate. Even the chicken enchiladas show admirable restraint, the tortillas lightly sauced to showcase a simple filling of shredded chicken, its salt and acidic elements rising to the surface for immediate pleasure.
Would I recommend the burrito or enchilada over the more traditional Salvadoran fare? I might in the case of the panes con gallina especiales, a sloppy sandwich of beets, boiled eggs, green beans and watercress engulfing a hardened slab of chicken breast. But, no, seven times out of 10 I’d go with the off-the-menu slices of green mango sprinkled with hot sauce, lime juice and alguashte (or ground pumpkin seeds), a simply delicious street food available right at the table.
And if I weren’t required to sample widely, I’d probably order the plato tipico every time I stepped into La Familiar. It’s nothing more than two eggs slathered with salsa, chocolate-y (yes, chocolate-y!) refried beans, sweet fried plantains and fresh, milky homemade cheese. It’s a Salvadoran breakfast for dinner. Or for you Maryland undergrads, the best hangover cure you’ll ever eat.
8145 Baltimore Ave., College Park. 301-474-8484.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro station: College Park, a 1.3-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $5.50-$11.95.