Pockets of Pride

At La Casita Pupuseria & Market in Silver Spring, cheese pupusas take their turn on the griddle.
At La Casita Pupuseria & Market in Silver Spring, cheese pupusas take their turn on the griddle. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Salvadorans love their pupusas. Available on nearly every Salvadoran city street corner and in restaurants and cafes, they make a quick any-time-of-day snack. In villages, women sell them, fresh from a wood-burning oven, in their front yards.

[See: Pupusa Places We Liked]

It doesn't stop there. How many other countries go so far as to honor their favorite food with a full-fledged official national holiday?

With 500,000 Salvadorans living in the Washington area, more than any other immigrant group, hundreds of restaurants have opened here since the mid-1980s selling the humble stuffed corn tortillas, serving them with cabbage salad and tomato sauce. But only a handful of places call themselves true pupuserias. In addition to the house specialty, these family-friendly diners may sell a variety of other Salvadoran dishes, but they resist the temptation to add food from other Central and South American countries.

Take Pupuseria Dona Azucena in Silver Spring, where on a recent weekday Orlando Galved and four friends peered through the front window as workers inside darted about, readying to open for the day. At the griddle along one wall, two young women were flipping what looked from a distance like so many pancakes.

"This is the only place I'll go for pupusas," said Galved, 37, a Salvadoran native who lives in Upper Marlboro. "The cheese and the meat they use give the flavor I'm accustomed to." Galved couldn't help but add a little criticism: "They could work on their cabbage. It needs to be cooked a bit more in vinegar."

As El Salvador prepares for the third annual Día Nacional de la Pupusa on Tuesday, with plans for a nationwide festival of art, music and even pupusa eating contests, I figured there was no better time for a pupuseria crawl, even if it's thousands of miles north of the dish's home. At seven pupuserias -- from Gaithersburg to Hyattsville to Fairfax and in between -- I found neat cakes, lovingly made, that were good to the last bite, and I found greasy, salty, messy pupusas in pieces.

To make a pupusa, a cook rolls a lemon-size wad of dough made of corn flour (or sometimes rice flour) into a ball in the palm of one hand. With the other hand, she presses one or more filling ingredients -- ground or shredded pork, shredded cheese, refried beans or a green Central American flower bud called loroco -- into the center of the dough ball. After a quick hand-shaping and flattening, the cook lightly browns the pupusas on a griddle.

So it has been for thousands of years, since the Pipil people, related to the Aztecs, first made this type of corn cake in what is now El Salvador and called it a pupusawa. Honduras and Guatemala have similar versions. Colombia and Venezuela have the arepa, which is thicker and made with cooked white or yellow cornmeal rather than corn flour, for a more intense corn flavor.

Traditionally eaten with the fingers, pupusas are hardy, filling for their size and only $1.25 to $1.75 each, seemingly a bargain until you learn that in El Salvador they cost 30 cents or less. The average serving size is three pupusas.

At some places here, the top sellers, revueltas, are filled with pork and cheese; at others, refried beans are included as well. Two pupuserias used dough made with rice flour, but neither of those made my list of five favorites.

I'll return to the spacious, 80-seat Dona Azucena, the first pupuseria in the Washington area when it opened in 1991, according to owner Azucena Hernandez, who is from the Cuscatl¿n region of central El Salvador. She also owns a second Dona Azucena location in Arlington and hopes to open a third in Woodbridge by the end of the month.

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