BEYOND BURRITOS: Cheese pupusas and a Salvadorian beer at La Guanaquita in Hillsboro. IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com
"It's like Mexican food. This here, it's like a quesadilla," the waitress said in a thick Spanish accent, explaining exactly what a pupusa is. "But I want Salvadoran food," I said with a wink. She smiled broadly, "Oh, you know Salvadoran food?"
Yes, yes I do. And I love it.
Salvadorans and Guatemalans are used to being mistaken for Mexicans. They're also accustomed to having their food confused with Mexican food. Both center on corn tortillas, tamales and fritters and share many of the same ingredients. But like the Mayan foods of the Yucatán Peninsula, Central American dishes tend to be subtler, with a lighter use of chiles. And while some Central Mexican moles can have 20 ingredients or more, the deeply flavored sauces of Central America are simpler and probably more ancient.
In this eat-around-town survey, you'll find the breadth of Central American food in greater Portland (plus a primer devoted to what you should be ordering, scroll down to the end of the story to read it). There isn't a lot, but once you get to know it, you're gonna love it too.
Autenticas Pupusas Salvadoreñas at the Oregon Flea Market
18340 SE Stark St., 492-9209. Lunch and early dinner Thursday-Sunday.
Autenticas is one of three hot food vendors inside the Oregon Flea Market, a weekend Hispanic bazaar packed with soccer jerseys, lucha libre masks and mannequins sporting skin-tight jeans. While the pupusas ($2 each) can be inconsistent, usually they are quite good, nicely crusted and ungreasy. The tamal ($2 each) is excellent, with a light, moist dough wrapped in both parchment and banana leaf. The delicious, golden-brown platanos fritos ($6) are like soft butter when cut with a fork. Beware the sopa de pata ($9), however. The heavy use of chile can't hide the tripe's unsettling aroma of manure.
232 NE Lincoln St., Hillsboro, 640-8018. Lunch and dinner daily.
Hidden in the back of a tiny strip mall across from Syun Izakaya, this Guatemalan restaurant and bakery can sometimes be worth seeking out. You can hear the cook pat out pupusas for each order. They're generous with the fillings, but the flavors are unbalanced. The curtido is average at best, yet the tomato salsa—studded with chunks of tomatoes intermingled with sweet onion and plentiful herbs—accompanying the pupusas is uniquely noteworthy. I ate it by the spoonful. Their tamal dough, wrapped around raisins and whole chicken wings (skin, bones, and all), is almost too moist, easily falling apart. But the meaty flavor makes up for this minor annoyance. Don't pass up the baked goods made fresh daily or other Guatemalan specialties like the pepian.
PUPUSA PARTY: La Guanaquita owner Silvia Espino Vargaz (back) oversees her Salavadorian and Guatamalan staff as they prepare fresh pupusas. IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com
2401 NE Cornell Road, Suite P, Hillsboro, 844-6884. Lunch and dinner daily.
The enormous menu here offers the Salvadoran food of the cook and owner, Silvia Espino Vargaz, the Guatemalan food of her husband, Jaime Sandoval, and the Mexican dishes that Silvia has cooked elsewhere. But don't let the prodigious choices intimidate you. These are the best pupusas in the metro area—freshly made and ungreasy with well-seasoned fillings and flavorful cheese ($2 each, minimum of two). Rice-flour pupusas, an option at La Guanaquita, have a mellower flavor and crispier texture. The curtido is yellow, crunchy and piquant with shaved carrots and sliced jalapeños. Many of the other Salvadoran dishes are solid as well. Molasses-colored platanos fritos ($5), yuca frita ($8) mixed with fried chunks of pork, and the unctuous sopa de pata ($9.50) with wonderful handmade tortillas are all tasty and worthwhile. With a silky-smooth corn dough wrapped around chicken, green olives, and potato, the tamal ($1 each), here, is especially good. As are the pastelitos ($4 for three), flaky empanadas stuffed with seasoned ground beef, carrots and peas. And then there's the Guatemalan menu, with fantastic dishes such as the pepian ($9), tender chicken smothered in a sweet and creamy pumpkin-seed sauce. It's a plate licker. In half a dozen visits, I haven't even gotten to the Mexican menu yet.
Gloria's Secret Cafe
12500 SW Broadway St., Beaverton, 268-2124, gloriassecretcafe.com. Open lunch Tuesday-Saturday. Dinner by reservation only. Cash only.
There are only four tables inside this downtown Beaverton lunch spot, which also sells pupusas at the Beaverton Farmers Market. Unfortunately, the pupusas—soggy and pulled straight from the fridge—are the worst item on the menu. However, the tamales, also available at New Seasons, are light, moist and enjoyable. (Pupusa or tamal platter, served with rice, beans and salad, $10.50.) Many of the Mexican dishes on the menu are quite good, too. If you organize a small group, you can make a reservation for dinner.
5919 SE Foster Road, 775-7501. Lunch and dinner Wednesday-Sunday.
Recently reopened, Ma Toña's unfortunately offers an uneven experience. Nearly every dish is bland, like the cook forgot to stock salt in the kitchen. Squash, carrots, cabbage and tripe float in the complex, murky broth of the sopa de pata, along with the namesake foot and an ear of corn. But it takes nearly a teaspoon of salt to bring the flavors out. The pasty yuca frita ($8) clings to the roof of your mouth, not helped by the accompanying dry pork. Better are the pupusas ($2.25): ungreasy corn tortillas with fillings that are the only component of any dish properly seasoned. Sadly, the soggy curtido has no flavor at all, like the cabbage has been "pickled" in water. The restaurant's best dish is the platanos ($7), golden-brown with blackened edges, with a side of beans that only needs a couple of shakes of salt.
8324 SE 17th Ave., 231-5140, elpalenque.org. Lunch and dinner daily.
Along with Ma Toña's, El Palenque's one of only two Central American restaurants in Portland-proper. Too bad the food isn't better. Pupusas are leaden with flavorless fillings. The curtido is almost soupy. The tamal, stuffed with olives, red pepper and meat, lacks flavor. (Pupusa or tamal platter, $10, comes with beans and rice.) The platanos fritos are carbonized on one side and uncooked on the other. However, their sesame-topped pan de queso is light, sweet and crusty. And their yuca frita ($13) is the best executed in the entire survey with a puffy exterior and creamy, light interior. Check out the Salvadoran Special for $26: Two pupusas, tamal, fried plantain, Salvadoran cheese bread, rice and beans.
3460 SW 185th Ave., Suite A, Beaverton, 356-2376. Lunch and dinner Wednesday-Monday.
Beaverton's Aloha Mall is a nexus of good eats. That's not sarcasm. With two of outer-PDX's best taco trucks (Ely's and Mexico Lindo), plus this Salvadoran gem, it truly is. Pupusas ($2) here are a little bland, but freshly made, non-greasy, and among the better ones in this survey. However, it's the rest of the menu that makes this shop stand out. The sopa de pata ($9) is heavily seasoned, but gelatin rich with odorless tripe and vegetables permeated with the flavor of the broth. The fat, handmade tortillas that come on the side are like filling-free pupusas, perfect for sopping up the soup. Platanos fritos ($4) are cooked until almost black, tasting of banana and caramel. Their tamal ($2) is moist, creamy and flavorful. The yuca frita ($8) comes with a choice of pescaditos or chicharrón. They also serve up one of PDX's best sandwiches, the pan relleno ($4), a sub stuffed with a tomatoey chicken stew that will drip down your arm. And then you'll greedily lick that arm clean.
Panaderia La Paz
Primarily a torta shop and Salvadoran bakery, this joint on outer Northeast Sandy Boulevard also hand-makes pupusas ($2) to order. The fillings are delicious and well-seasoned, with gooey cheese that stretches from your mouth to the plate. The curtido is crisp and bright. Look for quesadilla Salvadoreña (75 cents), a lightly sweet bread with a cakey texture topped with sesame seeds. But you'll have to wait, while I was researching this story the shop closed—it's moving to Vancouver. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Here's a cheat sheet of some of the dishes you'll find in Portland's Guatemalan and Salvadoran restaurants. —Nick Zukin
Jocón: A slightly tart, tomatillo-based green sauce from Guatemala similar to a mole verde, often thickened with pumpkin seeds and served over meats or poultry.
Pepian: An earthy Guatemalan sauce similar to Mexico's pipián mole, usually thickened with pumpkin seeds and served over meats or poultry.
Pupusa: A Central American quesadilla about the width of a typical Mexican corn tortilla, but thicker. Can be made with corn or rice flour and filled with beans, cheese, pork, or vegetables such as loroco, an edible flower. Served with curtido de repollo, a pickled cabbage slaw, and a simple tomato salsa.
Plátanos fritos: Ripe plantains pan-fried until dark golden brown. Served with sour cream and mashed beans.
Rellenos de pacaya: The bitter, immature flower of a palm tree found in Southern Mexico and Central America resembling tentacles, battered in egg and covered in a tomato salsa.
Sopa de pata: Cow's foot soup with tripe and a variety of vegetables in a luscious broth enriched from ample melted connective tissues.
Tamales:Similar to the banana leaf-wrapped tamales of Southern Mexico, except that the corn dough is cooked in liquid prior to being filled and recooked. This gives them a smoother texture than most Mexican tamales.
Yuca frita: Fried manioc (a.k.a. cassava), a starchy tuber similar to a potato or taro, served with curtido and vegetables, plus either fried pork (chicharrón) or, less commonly, small, fried fish (pescaditos).
Contributor Nick Zukin is the co-owner of Kenny & Zuke's delicatessen and SandwichWorks. He also runs the local food sites portlandfood.org and extramsg.com, and is a voracious consumer of under-the-radar ethnic cuisine.