The national food of El Salvador is the pupusa, and there’s no better way to personify the humble qualities of the Salvadoran people than with a simple, unassuming disc of corn masa that may contain cheese, beans, meat and/or vegetables. El Salvador is a tough place to live (Author’s note: I lived there for about 15 months) and has caught more than its share of bad breaks during the last half century relative to its other Central American neighbors: rampant gang violence, a decade-long civil war, and few tourist attractions to speak of – they don’t even have a Caribbean coast, for goodness’ sake!
The pupusa: a modest exterior that contains a wellspring of goodness and surprises.
Yet the Salvadoran people constantly surprise you, time and time again, with their diligence, humor, and kindness. And that is, in essence, the pupusa: a modest exterior that contains a wellspring of goodness and surprises. It’s like getting a birthday present that’s wrapped in some old newspaper, but when you open it up, there's a brand-new MacBook inside.
The best pupusas I’ve had, in El Salvador or in the States, have usually been in some kind of covered outdoor setting: on a someone’s patio listening to rain tapping on a corrugated tin awning, or sitting at a long table with strangers, picnic-style, under a canopy or other kind of pavilion-like structure. I’m not sure why that is. But being simultaneously out-of-doors and yet contained inside your own dining ecosystem – a dining terrarium, if I may coin a phrase – adds a huge amount of enjoyment and atmosphere to certain eating experiences.
The best pupusas I’ve had in El Salvador have usually been in some kind of covered outdoor setting
This is what makes eating pupusas at Chico Loco, a modest set-up in South L.A., the magically informal experience it is. Huge, gray sheets of tarpaulin cover the carport of a house on a quiet stretch off of Avalon Boulevard where the matriarch of the household does her work. Long tables hold her various ingredients and supplies: guacales of masa, minced pork, and cheese; paper plates and plastic utensils; jars of bright red salsa and tubs of spicy curtido, the vinegary cabbage slaw that is essential to any pupusa venture.
Pupusas are innately a social food – like cookies, they’re meant to be consumed in batches. No one ever goes home and makes a single pupusa at the end of the day – it’s just not practical. They’re for parties, family gatherings, community meetings, or even just to celebrate the coming of the weekend with the neighborhood – any situation where there are people involved.
She and her family hail from the Usulután region of El Salvador, and she chats happily with customers over the sounds of the neighborhood while her hands deftly craft pupusas. The conservation of movement is impressive as her fingers dart, lightning quick, to pinch of a small bit of masa and shape it into a cup in her palm. The other hand places a small amount of filling into the masa vessel and, with a few quick pats, it’s all been flattened out into a six-inch circle and placed onto the propane grill.
Pupusas are $2 apiece and very filling; one will nearly suffice for an entire meal. Once the outer corn layer of the pupusa has been punctured, cheese and filling bleed onto your plate. Filling options are some combination of the following: cheese, chicharrón (ground pork, in this case, not pork rinds), refried beans, and loroco (a nutty, fragrant edible flower that doesn’t get nearly enough love from cooks). A "revuelta" pupusa contains a little bit of everything. Depending on the day, you might luck into some chipilin (a leafy vegetable that tastes a little like watercress) or ayote (squash) but don’t count on it.
Dig in with a fork if you like, but pupusas are a finger food
Put a big helping of the cold curtido slaw onto your pupusa and drench it in salsa (careful though: there’s two bottles, one marked "PICANTE," and it’s extremely picante). Dig in with a fork if you like, but pupusas are a finger food. Tear off a small piece with two fingers and incorporate some curtido into the same bite. The curtido has an added benefit of cooling down the searing hot pupusas.
The result is perfection: salty ground pork mixed with gooey white quesillo; the grease from both mixing with briny liquid from the curtido and running down your hand. A slight grittiness from the refried beans. The pillowy corn masa, fresh and not too obtrusive – many a pupusa has been ruined by being too masa-heavy – and a welcome dose of heat from the salsa.
Drinks are homemade and include, depending on the day, Salvadoran-style horchata (which differs from Mexican horchata in that it includes a type of melon seed called morro), and two hot, comforting, corn-based beverages: thick chocolate-y champurrado, and a cider-like pineapple atole.
Chico Loco Pupusas serves up fresh pupusas Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings, but they've recently indicated they may be taking a break.