Starting in the 1980s, as civil war tore the country apart, thousands of Salvadorans uprooted their families to start life anew in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs around Washington. As their numbers swelled over the years, so did their restaurants, which introduced many of us to the masa cake at the center of Salvadoran life: the pupusa, a handmade round dedicated to frugality and deep corn fragrance.
Often compared to a gordita or an arepa, the pupusa has a personality all its own, less flashy and more workmanlike. At least it is in Washington, where the masa pocket has proved immune to fashion, its flavors and ingredients seemingly locked in place, as if Salvadoran immigrants decided long ago that one thing would remain constant in their chaotic exodus from the mother country.
More than three years ago, I poked around the local pupusa scene and wondered why, several decades in, the snack had remained mostly confined to Salvadoran eateries, isolated from those who would dare dress it up for modern palates. Even then, there were a couple of pupusa outliers, such as La Casita Pupuseria and Market in Silver Spring (8214 Piney Branch Rd., 301-588-6656) and Germantown (18058 Mateny Road, 301-515-8575), where the owners sold ground beef or lump-crab-and-shrimp pupusas, clearly aiming to expand the market.
Since that story, though, pupusas have appeared sporadically at even more fashionable addresses: A mushroom version, for instance, popped up at Compass Rose on the 14th Street corridor, and the Neighborhood Restaurant Group engineered a confit pork-belly pupusa for B Side in Fairfax.
Neither of those are currently available, but you can still find a zucchini pupusa at Baby Wale (1124 Ninth St. NW, 202-450-3311), the casual sister restaurant to chef Tom Power’s more formal Corduroy. The appetizer, or “small thing” in Power’s vernacular, features two pupusas laced with mozzarella and flecked with tiny pieces of summer squash. The cakes are remarkably faithful to tradition, almost cousins to the classic pupusa de ayote con queso, a squash-stuffed round often prepared with sweet calabaza and Salvadoran cheese. Power’s version adopts a chef-driven presentation: The pickled “curtido” slaw and tomato salsa condiments are layered artfully on top of the rounds, to conceal the pupusa’s unrefined features.
One other thing about those two Baby Wale pupusas: They’ll set you back 10 bucks.
Price, above all else, may be the prime reason pupusas don’t migrate to trendy dining rooms. Consciously or not, Washingtonians appear to have a limit on what they’ll pay for the handheld bite. Chef Nathan Anda says price factored into his decision to pull the pupusa off his menu at B Side. “I guess people believe [pupusas] should absolutely be under $2,” he says.
The expectation of cheap immigrant food reminds me of a recent discussion with chef David Chang, who was moaning about the public’s distaste for expensive Asian noodle soups, even when the broth is prepared with brisket and short ribs, among other pricey cuts. If Chang were running an Italian restaurant, and not Momofuku CCDC, he said he could call it pasta en brodo with brisket and easily charge $27. No one would blink an eye, he thought.
“That pisses me off,” adds Chang, who has considered putting pupusas on his D.C. menu. “That I’m stuck by some type of ethnic price ceiling.”
Out on the pupusa front lines, whether the northern stretch of 14th Street NW or the southern Zip codes of Montgomery County, the price of those masa cakes rarely breaks the $2 threshold. Nor do they break much new ground, relying on the traditional cheese, bean-and-cheese, pork-and-cheese, loroco-and-cheese (loroco is a Salvadoran flower bud, sort of a cross between asparagus and an artichoke) and mixed-ingredient rounds that have served generations of Salvadorans.
In some ways, the recognized leaders in the D.C. market have mysteriously retrenched. I recently walked into Gloria’s Pupuseria (3411 14th St. NW, 202-884-0105) and cracked open the menu to find . . . no pupusas anywhere. I had to special order them, and they were fine specimens, conservative in approach but browned, fragrant and delicious.
I’m not fussing about the lack of innovation, at least not much. When done well, the standard-issue pupusa remains a snack of simple elegance: the exterior plain and tempered by heat, the interior soft, creamy and yielding. Whenever I dig into a stack of generously packed, thinly patted and lightly griddled pupusas, I walk away stuffed and happy, the sweet fragrance of corn clinging to my fingers long after the rounds are history. I’m content, in fact, even when the accompanying salsa pours as thin as tomato juice, like it does as Pupuseria La Cabanita in Hyattsville (1511 University Blvd. E, 301-408-1119).
La Cabanita pushes the pupusa boundaries ever so gently. Among the more traditional rounds, you’ll find a jalapeno pupusa, its masa shell just a wisp of grilled dough holding together an almost flammable mixture of diced pepper and cheese. Even more interesting, La Cabanita gives you the option to order any pupusa with a rice-masa shell, which I would highly recommend — and not just for the sake of novelty. Rice is a staple in the Salvadoran diet, so it’s no surprise that some cooks use its flour for pupusa-making. The surprise here is the rice-masa texture: good and chewy, like a Korean rice cake.
In all my pupusa travels, I still didn’t find a place as willing to experiment as La Casita, which I explained to Jaime Arbaiza, district manager for the family restaurants. “I don’t even think we push it enough,” Arbaiza says.
La Casita still has a crab-shrimp pupusa (its cheesy mixture a light, lovely taste of the sea) and a beef pupusa (diced beef has replaced ground, for a more forceful bite), not to mention ones stuffed with baby spinach or shredded squash, each expertly balancing bitterness or sweetness with masa and mozzarella. But Arbaiza also has decided to import quesillo cheese (you have to ask for it), the fresh curds often found at the center of pupusas in El Salvador. One bite, and you can see why: The stringy, tangy, salty quesillo cuts through a masa shell like, well, like it was made for it.