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La Brasita breaks the pan-Latin mold with crab pupusas and other superb dishes

From left, David Campos, Lucy Campos and Tatiana Morales in front of the mural painted by Tatiana at their restaurant, La Brasita. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)
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Maybe this idea borders on sacrilege to you, but the first thought that went through my head when biting into the Maryland pupusa at La Brasita was this: It reminds me of crab pretzels, that balance-beam melding of Chesapeake Bay shellfish, salty stadium snack and carny food. My second thought: Why did it take so long for someone in the local Salvadoran community to invent a pupusa stuffed with blue crab, Old Bay and cheese?

The answer to that question may be more obvious than it seems. It required a second-generation Salvadoran American, born in Maryland but with deep affection for the homeland, to make the connection between the Central American street food and steamed blue crabs caked with Maryland’s beloved seasoning. David Campos was the right man at the right time.

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Campos isn’t even the chef at La Brasita. His mother, Lucy Campos, handles those duties, and the division of labor here is as clear and bright as the light that pours into this corner cafe in the Red Mill Shopping Center, says his sister, co-founder Tatiana Morales. Morales has final say over the design and social media at the restaurant, which opened last year. David runs the front of the house, and Lucy manages the kitchen. Their neatly defined roles help prevent internecine battles among family members in what could quickly become a tiny war zone inside this Derwood storefront.

And yet, Morales says, each co-founder can propose ideas for other parts of the restaurant, as when David suggested that his mom give Maryland pupusas a try. It was the kind of idea that might never have occurred to Lucy. She’s a native of El Salvador, where, despite a coastline that hugs the Pacific Ocean for many miles, home cooks and street vendors alike tend to avoid seafood when packing their pupusas. Leave it to David, the American-born millennial, to break new ground. He and some friends apparently came up with the hybrid dish.

“We wanted to combine the Salvadoran roots with my Rockville, Md., upbringing, I’ve lived in Rockville my whole life, born and raised, and went to school in the same area,” he said. “Making the Maryland pupusa just combined the two cultures together.”

Combining cultures has historically been a cruel, involuntary process, often forced upon people with the working end of a rifle. The beauty of the Maryland pupusa, by contrast, is its origin story: It’s an organic creation born from an immigrant family that sees value in two separate worlds. The fusion process, however, is rarely a clean one, and the Maryland pupusa is no different. Its inventors encountered an economic conundrum as they moved from development to menu: Pupusas have long been an affordable form of energy and delight among Salvadorans, but Chesapeake blue crabs are expensive, especially this season.

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So Lucy had to make a compromise when preparing her Maryland pupusa: It doesn’t include any local blue crab. She relies on the canned alternatives, usually picked, packed and shipped from places such as Venezuela and China. Without the canned stuff, La Brasita’s Maryland pupusa could run as high as $10 for a single masa round, David says. As it is, the item already sells for $4.50 a pop, nearly two bucks more than the other pupusas on the menu.

Regardless of the blue crab compromise, you shouldn’t miss the Maryland pupusa. It’s more than a brilliant fusion dish, a marriage of Mesoamerican corn, sweet blue crab and fresh mozzarella, brought into a radiant harmony with Old Bay and hot sauce. It’s also a statement of purpose: La Brasita will not be bound by the strictures of first-generation Salvadoran restaurants, including La Brasa, the pan-Latin place that Lucy started with her husband 15 years ago in Rockville.

“We wanted to create a space where anything is possible,” Morales told me. “And what that means is that we can be creative and experimental and weird and, you know, we sort of encourage that.”

The innovations begin with Morales’s restaurant design, which affirms Salvadoran culture in a minimalist dining room that, at heart, embraces the meditative calm of sunlight and few worldly possessions. On one azure wall, Morales has painted Indigenous ruins (more Chichen Itza in the Yucatán than Tazumal in El Salvador), and on another, she has depicted a torogoz, the Salvadoran national bird, with its turquoise tail that looks like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. The music that pulsates inside this space is a mix tape, featuring the majestic sweep of tunes that have informed David’s young life, whether James Brown or Cafe Tacuba.

Against this backdrop, Lucy produces a compilation album of her own, pulling together a tight, tasty menu that draws from cuisines throughout the Americas. Her pupusas are superb, pressed thin no matter your desired filling and browned handsomely on a griddle, as if she has somehow managed to capture desire in a masa cake. The kitchen prepares tortillas to order, each pressed by hand, Salvadoran-style, into a corn-scented wrapper that swaddles your choice of filling. I’d highly recommend the cochinita, which are basically chicharrones by another name, each morsel of pork crispy on the outside and lush on the inside.

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The chef’s masitas de puerco is a dish true to its Cuban roots, the bite-size pieces of pork marinated in sour orange, then cooked in lard and olive oil. The accompanying strands of charred onions, all gnarly and bittersweet, complete the bite. The weather may not be ideal for hot soup, but don’t let that stop you from ordering the sopa de res, a luxurious broth that conceals not just chunks of beef but also soft, luscious lengths of yuca.

Lucy Campos’s finest dish may be her trucha frita, a butterflied and pan-fried piece of freshwater trout that is buttery and almost begging for a spoonful of fresh pico de gallo. The dish comes with the trout head on the side, its skull splayed open, so you can easily pick at its prized flesh. No waste, and no doubt one of the best preparations you’ll find in the area.

You can finish your meal with a chocolate tres leches, which is fine, but I’d suggest the housemade paletas instead. I polished off a passion-fruit pop one recent afternoon, allowing its tart, icy shards to cool me down before stepping back into the tropical heat. It’s a dessert, yes, but it feels more like a parting gift, from a spot that truly sweetens the Latin American dining experience in Maryland.

La Brasita

7206 Muncaster Mill Road, Derwood, Md., 301-569-6333; labrasita.com.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Nearest Metro: N/A.

Prices: $2 to $21 for starters, sides, snacks, tacos, burritos, chimichangas, entrees and desserts.

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