Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Great Los Angeles Pupusa Roundup

LA is awash in pupusas. The Slavadoran patties of masa filled with cheese, pork and beans are probably the most ubiquitous food from Koreatown to downtown, from the East Valley to South LA and beyond. They are to central LA as the hot dog or pizza slice is to Manhattan…a fast food staple that is available anywhere, at anytime, from a myriad of vendors.

I’ve loved the pupusa since I first tried one 13 years ago in Dallas. Since I moved to LA, I’ve tried them all over town and even made it down to El Salvador. (If you’re ever there, check out the pupusas at El Peche Cosme in Santa Tecla). I like to think of myself as pupusero (essentially, a pupusa chowhound).

For this roundup, I spent the last month and a half going to old favorites and seeking out new tips. I went to a vast array of pupuserias, concentrated in the mid-city to downtown corridor but venturing out when I got a hot tip. One thing I learned was that there are a lot of mediocre pupusas out there – they can be hard as rocks, greasy or mealy with flavorless fillings. For the most part, I’ve left those off the list and limited my roundup to the better and the best. After all, why tell you where not to go (unless it’s someplace you might be tempted to go because of wrongheaded or outdated tips).

At each pupuseria I had at least two pupusas: one queso con loroco (a Salvadoran vegetable) and one revuelta (a combination of chicharron, cheese and, usually, refried Salvadoran red beans). In a number of the restaurants, I tried a few other varieties and even other food, which I will comment on, but I focused in on the pupusas.

What makes a good pupusa? For me, there are several elements. The masa should be crisp on the outside, well cooked and not mealy. There should be a good proportion of filling to masa such that you can’t get a bite-full of pure masa. The filling should be flavorful. El Salvador is a country of strong cheeses, not pungent like French cheese but salty and distinct. The cheese should have flavor, not be a generic Mexican queso fresco and certainly not Monterey Jack. The chicharron should have a smoky, porky flavor. If I can’t tell I’m eating pork from the first bite, I’m not happy. The curtido (the spicy cabbage slaw that serves as condiment) should be acidic and spicy and most importantly, crisp and fresh tasting. No wilted cabbage please.

And now, on with the roundup:

THE FIRST TIER: THE BEST OF THE BEST

La Nueva Flor Blanca
Beverly Blvd., west of Normandie

La Nueva Flor Blanca is a little shop on Beverly Boulevard’s Little Central America strip (between Western and Vermont), which shares a block with two Korean nightclubs and…another pupuseria. The first time I tasted a La Nueva Flor Blanca pupusa, it was a revelation. I had liked pupusas and had been eating them for years, but LNFB’s were the first ones that made me see that pupusas can be truly great. LNFB understands the gestalt of the pupusa, the relationship between masa and filling that makes it work. The pupusas there are hand made while you watch, the masa is crisp and the filling plentiful. The Queso and Loroco is excellent and so overstuffed that a bit of queso always drips out onto the grill, making for some tasty fried cheese bits. But the crux of the LNFB experience is the amazing pork. The pork filling at LNFB, which they make on-site, is the best I’ve ever had, spicy and porky and crisp. When you mix it with the cheese and beans, it makes for what I think is the single best pupusa in all of Los Angeles. I can eat three LNFB revueltas at a sitting, not out of hunger, but out of a desire to keep tasting that perfect mesh of flavors, perfectly cooked. The one complaint I have about this place is the wilted and limp curtido, but the pupusas are so good that unsatisfactory condiments will not get in the way.


La Pupusa Loca
SW corner of Wilton and Santa Monica Blvd.

La Pupusa Loca is a comfy restaurant in an unimposing stripmall. (Strangely enough, it is right next to a pizzeria called La Pizza Loca.) La Pupusa Loca may be the best all-around Salvadoran restaurant I visited. While the traditional masa pupusas were very good, the highlight were the arroz, or rice pupusas. Rice pupusas are a different breed of pupusa, made with rice flour instead of masa. They are harder to find than traditional masa pupusas, but they do appear on the occasional menu. The rice pupusas at Pupusa Loca are heavenly. The rice is fried crisp, but when you bite into them you get that chewy, sticky sensation of rice, like those southeast Asian rice paper eggrolls I love so much. The rice has less flavor and is less absorbent than masa, so the flavors of the fillings are enhanced and have to stand on their own. LPL has fabulous fillings and they stuff lots of them into each pupusa. The pork was nicely smoky, the cheese was plentiful and flavorful. Now, this is not to downplay the masa puspusas, which were excellent with a nice crispy texture, but the arroz pupusas really blew me away!

Other good eats at LPL. Liquado de Zapote, a Slavadoran fruit that I’ve only had in liquados, this one is sweet and thick, if a bit grainy, and tastes like a vanilla shake. LPL offers some of the best fried plantains I’ve ever had, with a deep brown, carmelized flavor…it was almost like eating Bananas Foster sans the booze.


THE SECOND TIER: THE RUNNERS UP

Delmy Pupusas
Sunday’s Hollywood Farmer’s Market on Ivar

Delmy’s at the Sunday Hollywood Farmer’s Market dishes out pupusas to a long line of shoppers who know their heriloom radishes from their grass fed bovines. Delmy’s is the only pupuseria I’ve seen with a largely non-Salvadoran clientele, and that’s not the only thing that distinguishes it. It has a much wider menu of fillings, including shrimp, chicken and veggie but without any loroco. Instead of encasing the filling within the masa, the filling is blended throughout to make something really more akin to a Korean egg pancake than a traditional pupusa. They are flat and thin. The masa is also different. I’m not sure if it’s differently composed (flour, maybe?) or it’s just the effect of mixing everything together, but it has a slightly lighter taste and a pleasant sour tang. The curtido at Delmy’s is a purple sauerkraut that will make your lips pucker and goes with the overall sour theme. While different, these are very good pupusas. As for the fillings, the cheese could be more flavorful, but the pork has a good smoky flavor. The shrimp were plump and well cooked, but I’m just not ready for shrimp pupusas. I’m convinced that Delmy’s is the next step on the pupusa’s journey to the U.S. It is the introduction of the pupusa to a wide variety of non-Salvadorans. One day, when pupusas hit it big…when some temple of haute cuisine whose chef shops at the market starts serving a pupusa stuffed with braised pork belly, foie gras and goat cheese accompanied by a cabbage coulis, people will likely look back to Delmy’s as the bridge to mass acceptance of the once humble pupusa.


Los Chorros

Century Blvd. & Condon, Inglewood

The outer window of Los Chorros welcomes you with a clutter of beer signs, the Health Department’s giant “B,” and a poster touting it as part of Inglewood’s “No Prostitution Zone,” though looking around the parking lot, someone may want to call whatever agency enforces those zoning laws. Inside, however, are some great Salvadoran eats. I hadn’t been to Los Chorros in years, but they are still putting out great pupusas. Their queso con loroco is particularly excellent with a good crust on the masa and nice flavor. The revuelta was a bit too heavy on the beans and light on the pork for my taste. The curtido was quite spicy, but wilted.

Other good eats at Los Chorros: The other food at Los Chorros actually rates better than the pupusas. The fried tamales de elote (corn tamales) are some of the best I’ve had, crisp on the outside, sweet and moist on the inside. The Yuca and Chicharron, that heart stopping dish of deep fried yuca and pork, was insanely good, also the best version I’ve had. It has huge chunks of pork and Yuca, fried perfectly and not at all greasy…this may be one of the best pork dishes in LA.


THE DISAPPOINTMENTS

As I said, I’m not reviewing the numerous pupuserias that I thought were not up to par, but I did want to express my disappointment with two places that are commonly recommended for pupusas.

The Texis Chain
(various locations)

The Texis chain is spread throughout the mid-city area (I went to the original Texis at Vermont and 7th). The pupusas are not horrible, but aren’t anything special either. The masa is a bit too thick and mealy and the cheese is not flavorful enough. The revuelta is nicely done with good pork flavor, but there is not enough filling. The curtido is good and heavy on the oregano. Overall, an okay choice if you’re in a pinch, but nothing to write home about.


Atlacatl
Beverly Blvd. west of Vermont

Atlacatl is probably the most recommended pupuseria in LA. Do a search on Chowhound and you will inevitably find Atlacatl recommendations (some by me). I don’t know if it’s that they have gone downhill or that they never were that good to begin with, but their pupusas were quite disappointing. They were well fried and had a decent amount of filling, but the filling was hopelessly bland. I could barely make out the pork in the revuelta and the cheese lacked any real flavor at all. They were also somewhat dry. While I had worse pupusas at other places, these were particularly disappointing considering all of the praise that has been heaped on this place over the years. All in all, I would not recommend Atlacatl for pupusas, especially when it’s a ten minute walk to that temple of masa and pork, La Nueva Flor Blanca.

Other eats at Atlacatl: I did enjoy Atlacatl’s pan con pavo, the giant Salvadoran turkey sandwich with watercress and cabbage, drenched in a turkey gravy like a giant Phillipe’s Turkey dip with veggies.


To Sum Up:

Top Tier: La Nueva Flor Blanca, La Pupusa Loca
Runners Up: Pupusa Delmy, Los Chorros
Disappointments: Texis, Atlacatl
Other good Salvadoran eats: liquado de zapote and fried plantains at La Pupusa Loca; fried tamales de elote and yuca y chicharron at Los Chorros; pan con pavo at Atlacatl.

Please let me know your favorite pupuseria so I can add it to my list. Happy eating.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

El Palmar
3555 W 3rd St
Los Angeles, CA 90020
(213) 487-6560

Just out of curiosity, have you tried the pupusas at El Palmar? I've only had pupusas @ 3 places, but so far El Palmar was my favorite. I'll have to try the places on your list to see how they compare.

sku said...

Never had them, but I'll add it to my list. Thanks.

cuscatleco said...

a couple of pupuserias that i have tryed that i would say make the cut woul be, los molcajetes in motery park i believe it's at on beverly blvd, must have them there with some horcha or tamarindo. la numro uno ,on vine st near fountain. because they make them nice,chunky and wide the amount of chicharon and cheese are perfect. and last iwould say el ilobasqueno on melrose , the main reason it's because they have delivery .it helps after having a couple of brews,aniways flavor is fair , salsa is good and they send plenty of curtido. but the ultimate placeto me would in EL SALVADOR sitting on a wood bench with the familia,out doors, the smell of pupusas and hot chocolat in the air.