Purists will tell you that pupusas should bear the marks of a hot griddle — those black-and-brown splotches that add a hint of bitterness and indicate the corn cakes have been cooked through — but the Salvadoran pockets should also hold their form, so they don't spill their gooey guts all over the plate.
I agree with this. And I reject it.
Over the years, I've come to love a pupusa with a small crack (or three) in it, so the cheese oozes onto the griddle and forms an espresso-color pool that hardens into something crisp and chewy. It provides a satisfying contrast to the soft, often pillowy pupusa.
I offer this semi-confession as acknowledgement that some of my favorite pupusas are technically challenged. I mean, in a perfect world, all pupusas would adopt the characteristics of the archetypal corn patty and condiments: a filling that includes quesillo cheese, like the kind used in El Salvador; a complex, spicy and acidic curtido slaw of cabbage, carrots, onions, hot pepper and Mexican oregano; and a thin masa shell in which the dough doesn't become a solid, corn-scented curb at the edges.
But here's the thing: No matter where you order a pupusa — it might be at a truck parked on blistering asphalt behind a gas station in Silver Spring or within the cool confines of a chef-driven restaurant in Shaw — they will all have imperfections of some sort. They might be too thick or uneven. They might be undercooked and flabby. Their shells might have split open to reveal their pork-and-cheese innards. Their curtido might be a single-note preparation of quick-pickled cabbage. Their salsa may be a thin tomato water without depth. Their cheese may be cheap mozzarella bought in bulk.
The perfect pupusa, in short, is as illusory as the monsters you chase with a Pokémon Go app.
With this in mind, I've laid out a few of my favorite pupusas. Many fall short of the ideal, which, as I just pointed out, doesn't exist anyway, at least not within the ticket-spitting rush of a hard-working pupuseria. You could say I've learned to recalibrate my critical faculties within the reality of workaday pupuserias. Shortcomings are no longer just shortcomings.
In making this mental shift, I like to remind myself of the sweet speech that the late, brilliant Robin Williams delivered about his dead wife in "Good Will Hunting": "She had the goods on me, too. She knew all my little peccadilloes. People call these things imperfections, but they're not. That's the good stuff."
My lone modification: Imperfections aren't always the good stuff. But they can be.
If any place comes close to the archetypal pupusa, it's this ambitious operation in Silver Spring. Unlike a lot of pupuserias, which use either mozzarella or a mozz-quesillo hybrid, La Casita offers a corn pocket stuffed with genuine Salvadoran cheese, which is at once sweet and creamy and salty and . . . what is that flavor right on the tip of my tongue? Call it earthy, for lack of a better word. The curtido and salsa are served together in a small bowl on the side, and although the condiment leans heavy on cabbage, it also includes a strong pinch of pepper heat. The kitchen's biggest mistake? There are serious breaches of the masa shell. 8214 Piney Branch Rd., Silver Spring. 301-588-6656.
Pupuseria La Cabanita
The tomato salsa is as runny as tap water, adding virtually nothing to your pupusa experience at this Hyattsville strip-center storefront. The main reason to darken the doorway here is to request that the kitchen substitute rice flour for corn flour. Pupusas de arroz, or rice-flour pupusas, are not some freakish product expansion designed to tap into a new market, like the Crystal Pepsi of Salvadoran snacks. No, pupusas de arroz have a proud history in Olocuilta, a town just southeast of San Salvador. These pockets also have a persona of their own: Milder and chewier than their corn-flour cousins, the pupusas have a texture that reminds of Mexican gorditas. 1511 University Blvd. E., Hyattsville. 301-408-1119.
The waitress returns to my table to deliver the bad news: The cheese used at this College Park pupuseria is actually a combination of mozzarella and quesillo, not the fresh Salvadoran cheese that she had originally promised. Her confession endears her to me instantly. I'm also fond of the pupusas here despite the mixed Salvadoran-Italian heritage of their cheeses (a common commingling, in fact, among Washington's pupuserias). The kitchen stretches the limits of standard pupusa fillings, stuffing its pockets with such combinations as shrimp-and-cheese and chicken-and-cheese. My favorite is the jalapeño-and-cheese mixture, in which the mozzarella and quesillo mute the capsaicin burn but accentuate the pepper's vegetal qualities. 8145 Baltimore Ave., College Park. 301-474-8484.
Sitting on a platter next to a Tex-Mex combo, my loroco-and-cheese pupusa looks like a tambourine. What I mean is, the cake has so many cracks around its edges that little circles of browned cheese have formed all around the perimeter. I pluck off the crispy bits of cheese and pop them in my mouth as if I'm pilfering pepperoni off the top of a pizza. Normally, I'd call these fried cheese coins a happy accident, but the second pupusa I ordered (for research purposes, obviously) had the same "mistake." The kitchen at this Mount Pleasant mainstay clearly loves its tambourine-pupusas. So do I. 1660 Lamont St. NW. 202-667-0010.
The curtido is so shockingly yellow, you might think, at least for a millisecond, that a Persian has sneaked into the kitchen and spiked the slaw with saffron threads. You, of course, would be wrong. The color comes from ground annatto seeds, which adds both visual appeal and a mildly nutty flavor to the condiment. Just as important, the curtido packs a powerful apple-cider vinegar wallop. The acidic slaw performs its job with distinction: elevating and cutting through any cheese masa pocket you order. Now, if only the kitchen would griddle those cakes a little longer, so they'd arrive with those tell-tale black-and-brown splotches. 1129 11th St. NW. 202-789-4110.
Other pupuserias worth visiting: Pupuseria Doña Azucena (71 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington. 703-248-0332; La Chiquita I (940 East-West Hwy., Takoma Park. 301-270-0366); Pupuseria El Comalito (1167 University Blvd. E., Takoma Park. 301-445-2225); and Pupuseria Irene's (2218 University Blvd E., Hyattsville. 301-431-1550).