Pockets of Pride
Customers Flip Over Pupusas, El Salvador's Favored Dish

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.

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.' "

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company