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.