1227 N. Hudson St., Arlington 243-4800 Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Prices: Dinner soups and appetizers $2.25 to $6.25; entrees $4.25 to $11.50. Cards: All major credit cards accepted. Nonsmoking area available.
Even from the outside, the Spanish-style building is inviting. Inside are three cozy dining rooms separated by arched doorways, white walls decorated with colorful folk art, and hanging plants to suggest the lush tropics.
The simple charm of this branch of the original El Tazumal in Washington is easy to appreciate, but zeroing in on the best of the menu is more of a challenge.
Although the dishes range from enchiladas to parillada argentina, the Salvadoran-staffed kitchen is at its best with Salvadoran specialties. A good place to start is with the el tipico combination plate ($6.75), which includes a cheese pupusa, a chicken tamal, a length of fried ripe plantain with beans, a chunk of the slightly sweet root yuca (cassava), and a tasty pastelito or pork-filled cornmeal dumpling. All of these also appear individually on the menu.
The pupusa, the homey corn pancake that, in addition to cheese, can be ordered with a filling of shredded pork or a mix of cheese and pork, is a favorite in El Salvador for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The inherent blandness of the pupusa is nicely offset by adding a dollop of the accompanying curtido, the vinegary cole slaw with a jolt of fresh jalapeno peppers. A milder curtido, this one with lettuce, blankets the more highly seasoned pastelito.
The only disappointment on the combination platter was the lackluster chicken tamal. A better tamal, perhaps even a dessert possibility, is the side dish, tamal de elotes, in which sweet corn is scraped from the cob, blended with sugar and steamed in corn husks. Although not as sweet as other versions I have tasted, it is nonetheless delectable served with a rich sour cream sauce.
As for other entrees, the results vary. Lomo saltado, an import from Bolivia and Peru, had still-pink strips of flavorful, albeit chewy, beef tossed with onions, green peppers and french fries. My favorite on the Argentine mixed grill was the wonderful chorizo (peppery Spanish sausage). Nearly as good were the crusty morcilla (blood sausage) and a thin, tender steak. Only the flavorless short ribs missed entirely.
Two pleasing seafood dishes were enhanced by sauteed sweet peppers, onions and tomatoes: a small, whole pan-fried sea bass, and large, sweet shrimp in a gently seasoned sauce.
The appetizers hold little appeal except for the fairly good ceviche, a lemon-marinated dice of raw fish that is quite spicy here. The tortilla chips tasted fresh. However, I prefer guacamole without the addition of cream and a salsa with more kick. The deep-fried chicken taquitos Tazumal had the same ho-hum filling as the tamal.
As for the six soups, the three that I tried on recent visits ranged from a full-flavored beef soup, sopa de res, with islands of yuca and cabbage, to the unexceptional homey chicken soup, or the watery black bean that improved with the addition of a fried egg.
There is domestic and imported beer including the light, agreeable Pilsner from El Salvador. The sangria was acceptable, but the fruit consisted mostly of diced orange peel. For a refreshing nonalcoholic drink, try the cinnamon-laced horchata, which is reminiscent of Ovaltine on the rocks.
For dessert I liked the tembleque, a coconut pudding sprinkled with cinnamon. The flan was silky but too thin, and the quesadilla salvadorena, a square of coarse, gently sweet rice flour cake, tasted good but was not exciting.
Service varied from prompt and professional to a bit slow, although El Tazumal is a nice place to linger over a plate of pastelitos and a Pilsner.