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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)

Galved is right: The pupuseria serves a bland version of the traditional cabbage salad called curtido. But here you'll find a pupusa with the robust taste of corn, not overshadowed by excess cheese or cooking oil, enclosing succulent pork flavored with cracklings. The identity of the stringy cheese with its unusual sour softness was hard to pin down, but it turned out to be a mix of mozzarella and quesillo, a Mexican cheese.

Nearby, at La Casita Pupuseria & Market, members of the Arbaiza family say they sell 350 to 500 pupusas per day. The inviting 30-seat diner and grocery is ringed with open boxes of plantains, big bags of rice and a glass showcase displaying handsome handmade cheeses and assorted tamales.

La Casita's tangy, rustic curtido is made with both the crunchy inside and more strongly flavored outside leaves. I like their greaseless pupusa, the size of a hamburger bun and filled with lean ground pork combined with green pepper, tomato, onions and melted mozzarella.

"People have a preference, and we make them smaller and not greasy by cleaning the grill all the time," says general manager Jaime Arbaiza, 25, whose parents opened La Casita five years ago. "We're raising the health consciousness by only using 100 percent peanut oil instead of lard."

At the six-year-old Pupuseria El Buen Gusto in Fairfax City, the Garcia family takes another tack with thick, saucer-size pupusas that ooze cheese when you pinch them apart. The cozy cafe has three booths and a four-stool counter facing the all-important griddle. With two wall-mounted televisions, a jukebox and a track system of colored lights, little Buen Gusto surely pulsates at night. At lunchtime recently, there was a steady stream of young men with an appetite for pupusas.

The loroco-with-mozzarella pupusa, generously prepared with whole flower buds instead of the slivers I found elsewhere, gives me a better take on the loroco's subtle, grassy flavor. The curtido is sweet, with no hint of vinegar.

"That's the way we like it in the north," says manager Maria Garcia before running off to take care of customers.

Another Garcia family -- no relation -- makes great pupusas at the year-old My Family's Cafe Pupuseria in Arlington. Bright and sunny yellow with 18 tables, the place has a sweeping mural of a beach-and-volcano scene along one wall. Behind the counter was Karen Garcia, 21, who says her family had to tinker with the recipes brought from Sonsonate, in western El Salvador.

"We had to Americanize them a bit. We want to market them to people of all nations instead of to just the traditional people," Garcia says.

In place of lard, they lightly grease the griddle with corn oil. Back home, they used a strong-smelling sour cheese; here, they use mozzarella. The curtido, pickled far longer than others and with a hint of chili pepper flakes, is fresh tasting and crunchy.

My last stop, the 16-table Arlington location of Dona Azucena, which opened in 1998, is mobbed on a Saturday at 2 p.m., with a line out the door. After enjoying another superior pork-and-cheese pupusa, I meet the owner's son, Ronald Hernandez, who is working the cash register. In the beginning, he says, a pupusa focus seemed a tough sell.

"It's hard in the Latino community to be strictly one thing," says Hernandez, 31. "Everyone tries to mix in Mexican to attract the Americans. But this is my mom's vision, to be the first. My mom said, 'We're a pupuseria, because that's what we sell.' "


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