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La Mexicana pupusa from LA Pupusa Urban Eatery
La Mexicana pupusa from LA Pupusa Urban Eatery
Wonho Frank Lee

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Three Young Restaurateurs Are Trying to Change How Angelenos Eat Salvadoran Food

It’s a pupusa party and everyone in LA is invited

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Oscar Monroy is tired.

And it’s not just because he’s a baker, a business owner, and a father. The deep, dark circles around his eyes illustrate a different challenge. They expose the push and pull he faces daily — whether or not to follow his father, Oscar Monroy Sr.’s, advice on how to sustain his bakery business.

“Sell more fruit. Sell market items,” is the advice, but Monroy doesn’t believe that’s the answer to the puzzle of how to expand and reach new customers.

There are plenty of other Salvadoran restaurants, places like Sarita’s Pupuseria in Grand Central Market that have served Angelenos for generations. It’s more challenging to find Salvadoran restaurants that appeal to diners outside of the immigrant population.

But Monroy is among a contingent of three young Salvadoran restaurateurs in Los Angeles who hope to give the cuisine of their heritage a larger platform and a more diverse audience. They are pushing for visibility in mainstream culture, something that Monroy’s father struggles to understand.

Vchos Truck in Mid-Wilshire in November 2018
Vchos food truck
Wonho Frank Lee

One intrepid food truck, Vchos, is taking its cuisine out of mom-and-pop shops and onto the streets, offering traditional dishes while rebranding the experience of Salvadoran food with a fresh, colorful, hip vibe, and bringing its food to high traffic areas.

Another brick-and-mortar restaurant called L.A. Pupusa Eatery sits in the historic Salvadoran enclave of Pico-Union. It’s reconfiguring the format of the pupusa, the Salvadoran staple, by looking into the owners’ LA upbringing for inspiration.

Finally, there is Monroy’s Cuscatleca Bakery, in Echo Park, serving classic Salvadoran desayunos (breakfasts) and Salvadoran pan dulce but with modern amenities that more Angelenos expect, like a comfortable cafe ambiance, fast-casual brunch options, wifi, and specialty coffee.

While these updates seem to the untrained eye as merely an effort to meet their customers where they are, there is a larger story of a population that’s fighting for recognition in the mainstream audience. The Salvadoran community has been generally overlooked by the Latin-American food scene, and even encounters villainization by the U.S. government. These changes from young restaurateurs encourage and uplift a small, but mighty community to step out and share who they are, through their food.

Cuscatleca Bakery in Echo Park
Cuscatleca Bakery in Echo Park
Salvadoran pastries and coffee at Cuscatleca Bakery in Echo Park
Salvadoran pastries and coffee at Cuscatleca Bakery in Echo Park
Wonho Frank Lee

Cuscatleca Bakery opened eight years ago when Monroy decided to package his bakery business for a fast-changing Echo Park. He borrowed some familiar elements from his father’s bakery business, the original Cuscatleca Panaderia in Pico-Union, like the name, the menu and concept — neighborhood bakery serving Salvadoran sweets, but he worked hard to transition them into a welcoming sit-down atmosphere. In comparison, Monroy Sr.’s bakery sells everything from baked goods, to grocery items and even a selection of imported Salvadoran cheeses and cremas, but was not the kind of place for folks to sit down and stay awhile.

Monroy’s dream is to serve a higher-quality experience that combines the best of both worlds — Salvadoran bread culture mixed with LA’s cafe culture. His traditional pan dulce — like quesadillas, a spongy, cake-like textured bread made with cheese and topped with white sesame seeds only made with vegan ingredients — is a perfect encapsulation of his goals.

Even as Monroy is ready to embrace new customers and ideas, he admits to the challenges ahead and the tension he balances day-to-day. He must expand his customer base but find a sweet spot with his prices and not alienate his older Salvadoran clientele — his loyal regulars — due to changes in his bakery’s menu. Monroy reflects out loud about a shift in people’s eating habits, “People are eating less bread and becoming more health conscious.”

Meanwhile, on the road, Wendy Centeno co-owner and chef behind Vchos Pupusas food truck can still remember the very first time she heard a customer mispronounce her native El Salvador’s national dish.

“Pup-u-s-a? What is a pup-u-s-a? Did you invent it?” Centeno recalls those early days, eight years ago when it was clear that despite the prominence of Salvadoran food in Los Angeles, there were still a lot of people unfamiliar with the flavors and dishes of El Salvador.

A good day eight years ago, meant Centeno and her business and life partner Donny Morales could pay their one staff member, and purchase inventory for the next day.

“Everything we made, we put back into the business. We decided to keep going until they [customers] told us to stop,” said Centeno.

“We also felt it was time to introduce [Salvadoran cuisine] to everybody,” Morales added.

Salvi cheeseburger from Vchos
Salvi cheeseburger from Vchos
Vegan pupusa at Vchos
Vegan pupusa at Vchos

“If everybody knows what a taco is, then why doesn’t everybody know what a pupusa is.” To make this happen, both Centeno and Morales faced homelessness while starting their business. Sleeping in empty flipped homes owned by friends, their car, or their friend’s couch, only resting enough to make more pupusas and drive more miles the next day.

Their food truck comes with a brightly lit signature metal marquee sign in large red letters reading “PUPUSAS.” Spot their trucks in neighborhoods that aren’t known for pupuserias, like Venice, Sherman Oaks, Abbot Kinney, and near LACMA once a week.

Vchos serves traditional Salvadoran classics with a California spin. Pupusas revueltas are traditionally stuffed with a classic combination of a cheese blend, beans, and pork, but instead come with fresh housemade cashew cheese, vegan chicharron made from peas and vegetables. Centeno swears the taste is just like the real thing and she’s right.

Pastelitos, a crispy, fried hand-pie, comes filled with chicken and vegetables, assembled with organic masa and seasoned with achiote powder to give it a sunset-colored hue. They cook sliders with beef, bacon, melted cheese, and chipotle sauce, topped with fried plantains and curtido, a pickled cabbage that rounds out the flavor with a pleasant punch of acid.

Vchos Pupusas now shows up at all the hot food festivals across Southern California and operates two trucks with more than a dozen staff members. They don’t have plans to slow down.

Back in the neighborhood of Pico-Union, nestled between Downtown and Koreatown, Juan Serabia and Stephanie Figueroa opened La Pupusa Urban Eatery less than a year ago. They treat everything in the restaurant, from the menu to the plating to social media, to appeal to millennial Salvadoran-Americans. This means creating Instagram worthy memes, enamel pins, and graphic tees. They have a menu that plays more like a mixtape featuring Salvadoran food’s greatest hits blended with LA’s neighborhoods and cultures. It’s a food soundtrack that explains their 90s upbringing in LA.

La Pupusa serves comfort foods like traditional sopa de patas, or cow’s feet and tripe soup, though diners can opt to add udon noodles, a thick Japanese noodle that also appeals to a lot of the local Korean clientele.

Choripan sandwich from LA Pupusa Eatery
Choripan sandwich from LA Pupusa Eatery
La Pupusa Urban Eatery in Pico-Union
La Pupusa Urban Eatery in Pico-Union

A dish called La Mexicana caters to Mexican locals by topping a pupusa with carne asada, pico de gallo, guacamole, Salvadoran sour cream, and cotija cheese.

The restaurant’s Instagram handle, @LaPupusaDTLA has become a sounding board of sorts for both fans and critics of the Salvadoran, Korean, and Mexican food mash-ups.

“What’s in the La Mexicana pupusa? Should that even be allowed?” commented one user under the name @csermeno for a recent post. About the same dish, @letypr_08 stated, “This is me on a plate lol. I’m half Mexican and half Salvi.”

But Figueroa adds that these were often the leftovers that she’d assemble as a child.

“This isn’t Salvadoran. This isn’t tipico (traditional)...this is the food you’d find in our fridge growing up,” says Figueroa.

Traditional dishes that her abuela, or grandma, made were reimagined with the remnants of other meals. Leftover pupusas would be topped with Mexican salsas from the taco runs the night before. Or she would tuck sandwich deli meat inside a Salvadoran pan Frances, or French roll, loaded with curtido and casamiento, Salvadoran slaw and beans and rice, respectively. This made for a brilliant but practical afternoon snack.

“We want to bring you in our home” Figueroa said. “We are 100% Salvadoran. We were raised by our family but we also have LA. We said when it’s our turn to bring something to the table, let’s bring us, literally bring us.”

Apart from their shared drive to support their children, Serabia and Figueroa are motivated to represent the real face of the community and bring the Salvadorans in LA together through their work at LA Pupusa.

“We feel a fire under us, to stop the generalization that we’re all Mexican,” Figueroa says. “Show them that we’re just as important as every other culture”

“A lot of restaurants are generational,” says Monroy. “They’re very reluctant to change something that’s worked for 20 or 30 years. Tradition works.”

Yet despite these cultural tensions and shifts, Monroy lights up when asked about his dreams of opening more locations and seeing Salvadorans making moves in the food business, “I know so many [Salvadoran] people who work in the industry and when you talk to them they have all these ideas. We want to open up this and that. It’s the money. That’s what’s holding me back.”

Though there is a hint of trepidation in his voice, he adds, “It’s interesting to see that our foods are not going anywhere. They’re not kicking us all out of the country. It’s a very exciting time.”

Vchos Truck roams around Los Angeles. Find them on Facebook.
Cuscatleca Bakery. 2501 W. Sunset Boulevard, Echo Park, Los Angeles, CA
LA Pupusa Urban Eatery. 1051 W. Washington Boulevard #G, Los Angeles, CA

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