Sunday night, seven, 8th Street, up near Highland, National City. Not many places open for a hungry lad like myself. Yes, Cabo Wabo Grill and Bar is blasting out Historia de Un Amor, but I’m looking for food more than grog right now. Besides, wasn’t the Point Point Joint – Filipino food – just across 8th somewhere?
Oh yeah. Highlandview Center, collection of eateries, dentists, travel shops and Wilson’s liquor store. But actually, when I cross, about the only signs of life are from the liquor store. Bunch of guys ripping up the floor in there. And Point Point Joint seems to have turned into a Hawaiian outfit, and even that’s closed right now.
Then I spot three guys sitting outside a little shop, and they’re looking at menus. Door is open. “Ricas Pupusas,” says one sign on the window. “Se solicita cocinera, que sepa hacer pupusas.” Has to be able to cook pupusas. Hmm. I go in to this bright room with a colorful cloth pinned to the wall beside the door. It’s a painting of women making pupusas in a café called “El Salvador Pupuseria Silvia.” And it turns out this is Silvia’s.
Pupusas? Basically thick corn tortillas stuffed with some savory filling. I’ve always loved their soft squelchiness, and the things you can fill them with. They go way back. Mayans down there have been making them and stuffing them with like squash flowers and herbs since way before the Spanish. At least 2,000 years. Nobody stuffed them with meat till the Spanish came.
How do they know all this? A volcano buried a village (Joya de Cerén) in ashes, just like Pompeii, and pupusas were instant-preserved. Archeologists found that whole cooking scene like a tableau. Pupusas were half-moon-shaped back then.
And talking of volcano, the wall along the whole other side is a mural of forests, flowers, ocean, and a very live volcano sprouting up through jungle. And yes, El Salvador has two dozen of them. Maybe this one in the mural is San Miguel, which exploded in 2013.
916 E. 8th Street, National City
The half-dozen tables have bright plastic table cloths and baskets of live orchids on top. Nice. A combo of red and blue booths. The little counter at the back is kinda cute, with a live fish tank set into it. Tania, the gal behind it, says to take a seat. She’ll come around.
I go plant myself in a booth. Start searching the wall menu for ideas. Oh boy. So much. Except a lot is Mexican food. So I decide to stick to pupusas. Specially as I can hear the slap-slap back in the kitchen: new pupusas being palmeado, or flattened, filled, recovered into a ball and then flattened again between oily hands.
I start with a potato-stuffed pupusa ($2.25). “With cheese too?” Tania says. “Same price?” I say, and straightway hate myself for asking. “Of course,” she says.
“Still doing breakfast?” I ask.
Because I’m seeing a possibility on the wall menu, “Platano con huevos” ($8.99), which shows scrambled eggs with long fried plantain halves, little lake of sour cream, and a big chunk of queso fresco – fresh cheese. Figure my pupusa would get on with these guys.
I’m also looking at a yuca frita plate ($6.99), and pupusas stuffed with loroco (an edible vine flower) or nopal (cactus), $2.25 each plate. But no. I’m hooked on the huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs) late breakfast idea, and a nice cheesy pupusa.
I also ask for a glass of horchata ($2). “Mexican or Salvadoran?” says Tania. I see two coolers at the counter. One’s more pink than yellow. “That’s the Salvadoran one,” she says. “It’s sweeter than the Mexican.”
I go for that. And actually, not too sweet. Really lushly delicious. They say it is made from jicaro seeds ground with rice and spices. Plus cocoa, cinnamon, sesame, nutmeg, tiger nuts, and vanilla. Mexican horchata is basically rice, cinnamon, almonds, vanilla.
While I wait, I check out the murals, the families sitting nearby, and the TV showing a slapstick comedy that has everybody here (mostly waiting for take-outs) smiling.
When Tania brings my order, it’s a lot. Firstly, a pot of “tomato sauce,” except it has more tart flavors than your average ketchup. Then, this bowl of what looks like multi-colored sauerkraut, a lightly fermented cabbage relish. Called curtido. Meaning cured, preserved in vinegar, I guess. Then, the grand presentation: big oval plate loaded with golden plantains stretching the length of one side, pile of scrambled eggs; next to that, frijoles, a pool of crema (sour cream). And next to that, the big white chunk of cheese. Queso fresco. But not weak. Has a strong salty flavor.
And on a separate plate, one bloated, golden pupusa.
“Put curtido and the sauce on top of the pupusa,” says Tania. “They will add flavor.”
And how right. The curtido’s not just vinegary like kimchi or sauerkraut. You get intriguing flashes of sweetness. And the sharpness is the perfect counterpoint to the corny cheesiness of the pupusa. I end up tossing everything onto the main plate. Because the sour cream, the frijoles, the rich sweetness of the plantain, and the umami of the eggs together make you wanna sing the Alleluyah chorus. Specially when you add generous chunks of the queso fresco.
I remember now, being in Salvador that one time. I was with this doctor who carried a revolver in his belt at all times. And yet there ain’t no more beautiful place. And I was so surprised at the gentleness of the cuisine. Silvia, who’s Salvadoran and Tania’s step-mom (Tania’s Mexican-American), isn’t here now, but one of the customers says Salvadorans flock here because Silvia has got it right, nailed it, cuisine-wise.
I can believe it. Now I want to try all the other pupusas. Meantime, quick nightcap at Cabo Wabo before the 929? Because, hey. Now I’m looking for grog more than food.
The Place: Silvia Pupuseria, 916 East 8th Street, National City, 619-534-2037; 619-773-6009
Hours: 9:30am – 9pm, daily
Prices: Pupusas stuffed with e.g. chicharron, loroco, cheese and frijoles, spinach, cactus, $2.25; pupusa stuffed with fish, $2.50; chicken stew, $9.25; pork ribs in tomato sauce, $10.99; casamiento (grilled chorizo with rice, beans, sour cream), $8.50; ejotes rellenos (stuffed green beans), $8.99; yuca frita (fried yucca), $6.99
Buses: 929, 955
Nearest Bus Stops: 8th and Highland/Highland and 8th