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Food Notes: A Taste of El Salvador

I eat out a lot in San Leandro. In Food Notes, I'll introduce you to some of my favorite places, and yummiest meals.

Since I don't have an office with a fridge to keep my sandwich cold, or a microwave to heat up leftovers, I eat out a lot around San Leandro. And while I certainly don’t consider myself qualified to be a food critic, I have plenty of thoughts about the city’s cuisine.

In Food Notes, I'll tell you about some of my favorite places and yummiest meals — mostly of the lunch variety, since that's usually when I'm eating out in town. 

Here we go!

Today, June 20, my stomach is happier, and more nostalgic, than it’s been in a long time. After driving by the place countless times and swearing to try it soon, I finally stopped by ’s for lunch.

San Vicente’s is a cute little Salvadoran restaurant (they have Mexican food, too) tucked in behind Little Caesar’s Pizza in the Davis Plaza shopping center, at Davis Street and Douglas Drive. You wouldn’t know it was cute from the outside, but the ambiance inside is pleasantly cozy, with wooden tables and chairs, and colorful paintings and photos of El Salvador decorating the walls.

Now, Central America isn’t exactly known for having great food, but there are some dishes produced in those little countries with wide enough appeal to have established themselves well in the U.S.

Pupusas are one of those foods.

I’m pretty sure that most gringos who are familiar with pupusas would say they’re a Salvadoran specialty. Actually, there’s a long-standing feud between Honduras and El Salvador over the rightful homeland of the pupusa. But sorry, hondureños, in my travels in both countries, I can say without a doubt that I much prefer Salvadoran pupusas.

A pupusa, for those who don’t know, is sort of like a thick, soft corn tortilla stuffed with a variety of fillings, mostly typically chicharrón (cooked pork meat ground to a paste), beans, quesillo cheese (similar to mozzarella), or some combination of the three. It’s topped with curtido, El Salvador’s version of sauerkraut (though typically much fresher and not so sour) and fresh tomato sauce.  

I love good pupusas. And I’ve had some really bad ones in my time. So I consider myself a decent judge.

At San Vicente’s, I ordered one bean and cheese pupusa, and one with cheese and loroco, a small, edible bud popular in Central American cooking. I was tempted by a variety of other things on the menu, including fried plantains served with beans and cheese, but I couldn’t resist another of my favorite Central American dishes — fried yuca (also called cassava or manioc).

I don’t recall eating a lot of yuca in El Salvador, but I got rather addicted to it in Nicaragua, where just about everything is fried (and good).

I knew all this food was going to be way too much for me to eat, but I couldn’t resist. And besides, pupusas are pretty easy to heat up later.

The yuca dish said it came with chicarrón, which I assumed would be fried pork rinds, because that’s how they typically serve it in Nicaragua. But I was pleasantly surprised when the beautiful dish showed up with chunks of fried beef circling thick strips of fried yuca. The yuca was topped with curtido and tomato sauce (like salsa but without the spice) and garnished with fresh tomato wedges, cucumbers and radish.

It was sinfully delicious, and so fresh that I didn’t feel too guilty about the “fried” factor. There were no strips of fat on the meat, which was perfectly salted and tender. The yuca was hot and filling, and the curtido and salsa were both fresh and mild. Pure nostalgia.

Same with the pupusas. I didn’t quite make it to the bean and cheese one (dinner!), but the loroco and cheese pupusa was generously filled (there’s nothing worse than a doughy pupusa with barely any cheese) with hot, melty quesillo. Topped with a good dose of curtido and a little tomato sauce, it was a messy, perfect little taste of El Salvador.

I downed it all with a glass of horchata, which I was crossing my fingers would be the Salvadoran version and not the Mexican version. It was. Salvadoran horchata is made from the seeds of a gourd called morro. It’s light brown in color, and generally richer than its Mexican counterpart, which is made of rice.

The horchata was a little more watery than I like it, but I honestly don’t know what consistency the traditional Salvadoran horchata is supposed to be. (This is embarrassing, but the best horchata I can remember was from a Pizza Hut off the Panamerican Highway outside of San Salvador. That stuff was thick!)

When the owner, who's from San Vicente, came out to ask how everything was, I loved the way she asked it, with such obvious confidence that the food really was “excelente,” as I told her it was.

The whole meal cost me around $20 with tip, which is, of course, way more than you would pay for the same meal in most restaurants in El Salvador (though it probably wouldn’t be as good or as fresh), but I definitely had a full dinner left over. 

Angele Sweet July 21, 2011 at 07:42 PM
Sounds delish! I will have to go to San Vicente soon!
Marga Lacabe July 22, 2011 at 09:28 PM
I love Favorite India, so my opinion may not work for you, but try Aroma in Castro Valley. It's a small restaurant, with a smaller selection of more authentic? interesting? just higher quality all in all food. It's a bit more expensive, but worth it.

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