An enormous plaster ice cream cone once dominated the facade, back when the restaurant was an ice cream parlor. People walking in the neighborhood of Columbia Road and 18th Street knew exactly what they were getting, but now the cone's gone, and they peer at the menu pasted in the window, wondering about the sopa de mondongo (tripe), and the tamarindo (tamarind juice).

The restaurant, El Tazumal, is known for its pupusas, but the owner could not very well hang a replica of one over the street. A pupusa looks deceptively like a small, talentless tortilla. It's really a kind of corn flour fritter, delicious, stuffed with cheese or bits of braised pork, or both, and served steaming in a basket--the El Salvadoran Big Mac, garnished with chopped cabbage soaked in vinegar, pepper and oregano.

Inside, customers sit at little tables covered in red plastic, listening to discreet mariachi. The Anglos are the ones drinking Carta Blanca, in case you're wondering. Salvadorans drink Bud. The youngsters, and many of the women, drink something called horchata, a vitaminous concoction that also happens to taste good. Toasted rice, corn, morro (think of pumpkin seeds) and cacao are ground, mixed with milk and served over ice. Waiters hustle back and forth with trays of the stuff.

El Salvador has reportedly given Washington about 50,000 Salvadorans, as well as the pupusa. Tazumal is one of several Salvadoran restaurants in the area, named for the Mayan ruins in that country; a painting of a jungle pyramid hangs on one wall.

Most people here are small by American standards, with large, dark eyes and a quiet grace. Many live and work in far-flung suburbs; the kids wear T-shirts that say "California" and "Florida," and their parents consider the restaurant expensive, when by Washington standards it is the opposite.

A few wear the polo shirts and flat heels of upward- pedalers on the early slopes of free enterprise, like the couple from Hyattsville who do not want to talk about their country, period. They drink Sprite and eat the New York Steak, which appears on the menu between Carne a la Parrilla (broiled beef with hot sauce), and Lomo Slateado (beef strips).

The owner of Tazumal is currently vacationing in El Salvador, but many of his customers don't plan to go back home. They shrug when confronted with the phenomenon of homeland. Pupusas, not politics, are the draw here --no equatorial Lenins plotting revolution while lapping up the sopa de res (beef soup with cabbage, yucca and plantain), no royalist spooks contending with lengua de res guisada (beef tongue stew).

And yet . . . One hears stories of a relative disappearing in El Salvador, of several relatives disappearing in El Salvador, of two whole soccer teams disappearing in El Salvador, after foolishly playing next to the house of the sister of a certain government official. The sister didn't like the noise, you see.

"The next day they found the soccer players in a line on the road," says a man who heard the story, "all shot." He samples his frijoles fritos, and asks, "What would you do if your children were starving, and a government official offered you $1,000 to murder your neighbor. That money comes from the United States. They call it 'aid.'"

Two boys hustle dates on the pay telephone. One wears Adidas, a red bandanna tied round his neck Tom Mix- style, and a tiny blank pistol in an imitation leather holster on his hip. Another table of teen-agers--all kitchen workers from Crystal City-- subsides into giggles at the mention of Salvadoran politics. "I went over there last year," says a girl in tight slacks, "and I didn't see any dead bodies."

Violence is bad for the appetite. Bullets and bistec don't mix, and some of the people coming into Tazumal seem exhausted by those stark choices. They come from as far away as Philadelphia, New York, even Chicago, family and extended family and then some, trying to fit into the American scene when their own roots have turned to chaos. It's all a bit baffling for them. Pupusas, and the horchata, act as a kind of sentimental ballast.

"Why are you such an izquierdista (a leftist)?" one customer often asks his wife, in private.

"Why are you so rightist?" she asks him.

His name is Danilo, hers Daysi. He works as a mechanic in Kensington; she takes care of their four children in a small apartment in Adams-Morgan, just down the street. They have come to Tazumal with visiting relatives--from Brooklyn, not San Salvador--more refugees from the vaguest of hot country wars.

Daysi left El Salvador after her stepfather disappeared. "He belonged to the opposition party. One night men came and took him away. He didn't resist, he had no weapon. That's all . . ." The sentence dangles, though her English is quite good.

"That's the difference between me and my husband. He hasn't lost anyone. He believes in working hard, and not talking about politics. I was raised to read the newspapers, to have opinions, to speak out. But no one wants to talk about El Salvador. Even here, they're afraid.

"Right now our landlord is trying to evict us and some other people from my country. I tell them, 'This is America, you can go to court. Nobody will shoot you!' But they're all scared. One of them called me a communist. I said, 'If a communist is a person who says what he thinks, and tries to get his rights, then I'm a communist.'"

The talk at their table, however, is about soccer. The team from El Salvador has met the team from Guatemala in RFK Stadium; the Salvadorans lost, 1-0.

"But it was a great game," says Danilo, the optimist.

T he pupusas please the visiting relatives; they like Tazumal, a delectable Mayan edifice in the capital of the free world. Baskets and Bud bottles soon cover the table.

They skip the flan and the tembleque, placed on the menu mostly for Anglos. Salvadorans, they say, seldom eat dessert.