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The Pupusa Novelas: The Final Chapter

20 Mar


When Gerry, freshly thawed from his ice fishing escapade, choose Tierras Centro Americanas as our group’s next destination, I was worried that I might have to eat more pupusas. Not that there is really anything wrong with pupusas, that Central American (Salvadorian in particular) street snack that we experienced twice in the last nine months, including Gerry’s last pick, El Tesoro II (The Poor Man’s Pupusas of Port Chester), and the one in Yonkers chosen by Mike from that same town (Living La Pupusa Loca); it’s just that maybe three pupusa adventures in less than a year is more than enough for me.

“Don’t worry,” Gerry said recognizing my trepidation as I arrived at the colorful diner-like restaurant. “The Guatemalan food is the specialty here.”

His words, I had to admit, were not reassuring, but I was hungry and Guatemalan food, or even another leaden pupusa would have been more than welcome in my famished condition.

We were just off Hillside Avenue and only a block from Sagar Chinese, the Desi Chinese place we experienced in January. For the first time in a long while our entire group was in attendance including Rick who was cherishing a rare few hours out and away from new Daddy duty.

Zio was the last to arrive and when he did he also had the, “oh no, more pupusas” look on his face that I did. So jaded was he with Central American cuisine, he didn’t even bother to look at the menu. “Order for me,” he said to me with a disinterested shrug.



There was a novela playing on the big screen television above our table and loud Latin music on the juke box making it difficult to hear Eugene’s booming voice. Taking Gerry’s advice, I stuck to the Guatemalan side of the bi-lingual menu and choose “caldo de pescado con arroz y tortillas,” translated to fish and shrimp soup with rice and tortillas. Without any ulterior motive, I picked the “jacon,” chicken in green hot sauce with choyote and green beans as Zio’s entree.

"Darling, my pupusas will make you swoon..."

“Darling, my pupusas will make you swoon…”

We let Gerry choose the “small orders,” and he went with the chile relleno along with “garnacha,” which resembled mini open-faced hard tacos with beef and the Guatemalan version of parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. We each sampled one leaving a few left. The leftovers were offered to Mike from Yonkers, but he had no interest, which was indication right there that maybe we were in trouble here. Despite their mediocrity, my hunger took over and showing no self control, I shoveled another garnacha into my mouth. The Guatemalan chile relleno, stuffed with beef, was also a disappointment; no better than a poor man’s version of the familiar Mexican specialty.



Rick did not hear Gerry’s spiel about the Guatemalan side being the better of the two-country menu and ordered “picadas,” from the “platos tipicos Salvadorenos” section. The mix of fried meats fried to dull grey oblivion, as it turned out, went mostly untouched.

Picada mista

Picada mista

When my fish soup arrived, I was greeted by two dark eyes peering from it belonging to one of the few shrimp, heads and all, that had boiled within. The first sip was salty and briny; no doubt fresh—so fragrant it was as if the soup was made from the waters of the nearby Jamaica Bay. The lumps of fish, bones intact, were tasty but also, for lack of a better word—fishy. My hands being of the asbestos kind were able to pull the fish from the scalding water and break off a few pieces, careful to excise the many bones from the flesh. The very fresh tortillas, the highlight of the meal, helped to mellow the broth but I could only get through about half of the bowl before I was done.

Caldo de Pescado

Caldo de Pescado

Even Mike from Yonkers struggled with his choice of salpicon, a room temperature, hash-like dish of chopped meats, onions, tomatoes and lemon. Only Eugene seemed satisfied with the very pedestrian shrimp in garlic sauce while Zio’s lone comment, positive or not, about the jacon was that he liked the choyote.

The highlight of the meal.

The highlight of the meal.

On the way back to my car I got a whiff of Sagar’s sizzling chicken which was around the corner from where I parked. I remembered how the vapors irritated our respiratory tracts when we were eating there (see Vanquished by Halal Vapors on Homelawn Street). But after the dull meal just experienced I would have happily welcomed those aromatic vapors into my lungs.

Tierras Centro Americanas
87-52 168th Street

Living La Pupusa Loca

18 Dec

pupusa loca 050

Sometimes the third time is the charm. At least that was the case for Mike from Yonkers who had to go to plan C for our latest outing.

Plan A was a “hot tip” on a place in Bloomfield, New Jersey. He kept the tip to himself, but we nixed schlepping to Bloomfield during the “gridlock alert days” we were currently experiencing.

“I’ll save that one for next time,” he slyly added, still keeping us under wraps on what we might encounter in Bloomfield.

Plan B illustrated that Mike from Yonkers was experiencing much holiday duress. Under pressure to select a destination, he mistakenly consulted New York Magazine and choose the wildly popular Brooklyn Thai  restaurant, Pok Pok. That he didn’t realize that a place given multiple stars (whatever they mean) by New York Magazine wouldn’t be mobbed by voracious foodies can only be excused by a combination of work and holiday stress. To make it clear to him, we sent him links with actual photos of some of the long and legendary lines waiting to dine at Pok Pok.

One thing Mike from Yonkers did know, at least we hoped he did after almost eight years as a member of our group, was that we never wait on line to dine. The options are too many for that. So one look at the links and he knew he had to go to Plan C.

Now, under immediate pressure, he went to his own backyard.  His pick: a Salvadorian place just over the Bronx border in Yonkers called La Pupusa Loca.

Welcome to Yonkers

And despite it not being in the five boroughs, La Pupusa Loca fit right into our criteria. A brightly-lit cafeteria where English was very foreign and Spanish novelas blared from multiple televisions, La Pupusa Loca featured large tables offering our group of five—Rick being absent after the very recent birth of his first child—plenty of room for food and flesh overflow.

Serious happenings on the tube.

Serious happenings on the tube.

Mike from Yonkers and I were the first to arrive, followed soon after by Zio and at that time, the lone waitress was ready to take our order. I started with a Pilsener, a Salvadorian beer, but waited on ordering food until the others arrived. By the time Gerry and Eugene arrived, however, the waitress was occupied with others and the wait seemed interminable.

“Is this the longest we’ve had to wait,” Eugene asked.

“I’m hungry,” Gerry bellowed. “I haven’t eaten since lunch.”

Finally, visibly harried, the waitress came to our table and took our orders. I needed to discover what the restaurant’s namesake, the pupusa, tasted like and ordered a bean and cheese.  Foolishly thinking it would be too much for me, I passed on what I saw someone else in the restaurant getting: the “mariscada especial;” an enormous bowl of fish soup where, lobster, shrimp with the heads on, and crab claws overflowed from. Instead I went with a seafood combination of shrimp and fried fish, casamiento, a mash of beans, rice, garlic and other herbs, and chimol, a Salvadorian salsa.

Gerry and Eugene both also ordered fish; Eugene the whole red snapper with onions and Gerry the fried porgy.

“Where does porgy come from?” I asked.

“Long Island Sound,” Zio answered.

“Yeah and that’s why I ordered it. To support our local fishermen,” Gerry cracked.

An enormous platter of pork chops passed our table and Zio’s weary eyes were immediately drawn to them. “I’ll have what they’re having,” he said repeating the oft-used line.

After studiously perusing the menu, Mike from Yonkers went with the steak combination which included an egg, scrambled according to the waitress.

“Can I have it fried,” Mike from Yonkers pleaded, giving her a look she could not refuse.

The pupusas arrived first, which came with a tomato sauce on the side and a big container of homemade pickled cabbage. Our waitress said the cabbage was eaten as an accompaniment to the pupusa.

“Its Salvadorian sauerkraut,” Zio announced after trying the cabbage. And so it was, but not really needed, in my opinion to enhance the already deliciously crazy pupusa.

Salvadorian sauerkraut

Salvadorian sauerkraut

The platters began to arrive. First were Gerry’s and Eugene’s whole, fried fish, both smothered in onions. Next were the super-sized pork chops. After inspecting their enormity, Zio groaned realizing what he was in for.

Only Mike from Yonkers’ family-sized combination platter exceeded Zio’s. On the platter was a selection of beef cuts, two long “maduros,” sweet bananas, a wedge of salty hard white cheese, and a mound of rice and beans; all of it topped with the requested fried egg.

Meat combo with fried egg.

Meat combo with fried egg.

When my comparably miniscule plate arrived, the discrepancy was noticed by all. On it was just a small wedge of fish filet and a few “medium” shrimp, along with the casamiento and chimol. It was as if I ordered from the kids’ menu, if there was such a thing at La Pupusa Loca.

“Don’t worry, you can have some of mine,” Mike from Yonkers generously offered.

But I had my pride. I figured I would finish what was on my plate first before I began scavenging for more. It didn’t take long; only the dense casamiento slowed me down.

The kids' platter; fish and shrimp.

The kids’ platter; fish and shrimp.

Mike from Yonkers had hardly made a dent in his platter by the time I finished. In fact,  Zio polished off the monstrous pork chops before Mike from Yonkers even touched the cheese.

Finally, I conceded. “I guess I’ll take you up on your offer,” I said to him. It wasn’t really that I was still very hungry, it was more as a prod to get him to work with a little more purpose on his platter.

He cut me a sizable wedge of “bistec,”  thinly pounded grilled steak, but by the time I got to it, the meat was cold and tough as a hockey puck.

I wasn’t the only one to notice how long it was taking him to finish the gargantuan platter “Geez, we’ll be here all night,” Gerry barked.

Sensing pressure from the group, Mike from Yonkers pushed the platter away from him. “Okay, that’s it. I’m done,” he announced.

A snapper drowning in onions.

A snapper drowning in onions.

While we waited for the check, I walked around the restaurant and noticed that the placemats under the glass tabletops all had maps of Honduras. This was a Salvadorian place, wasn’t it? Was there a difference between a pupusa from Honduras and one from Salvador? Frankly, I didn’t care.

La Pupusa Loca

297 S. Broadway


The Poor Man’s Pupusas of Port Chester

11 Sep

El Tesoro II

14 South Main St.
Port Chester

When Gerry sent out the email revealing his choice for our most recent adventure, there were doubts among us of its authenticity. His first obviously mock pick, for some reason known only to Gerry, was a fictional restaurant in Brewster, Massachusetts. Even Zio, who has been slow, as he is on most things, in recognizing Gerry’s much too subtle sense of humor, knew that we weren’t schlepping five hours to Cape Cod for dinner.

A few days later, Gerry came up with another destination. This one, El Tesoro II, in Port Chester, New York, I knew was genuine. Zio, however, had his doubts. He responded in an email writing the following: “I take it this is one of Gerry’s confusing attempts at humor. If I can’t get there with my senior metro card I will be relaxed about sitting this one out.”

Port Chester is approximately 24 miles from Manhattan. Gerry has had us put on the mileage before; taking us to Yonkers, Valhalla, White Plains, Fort Lee, Jersey City, and, worst of all, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. When it’s Gerry’s pick, we come to expect to battle the rush hour traffic leaving the city. Apparently, Zio wasn’t going to take it anymore, yet when the day arrived, his attitude changed and he not only agreed to travel to Port Chester, but to chauffeur me up there with him.

Rick, however, who lives roughly 77 miles from Port Chester, was a game day drop out. Attributing his cancellation to a late work-related meeting, Rick needed no excuse. He was more than justified in bowing out—Gerry’s cruel joke could be taken only so far.

Zio and I expected a long haul up to Port Chester but as it turned out during this rush hour, there was no rush. The roads were surprisingly clear and we made it to the stark streets of Port Chester several minutes before the scheduled meeting time.

Those few minutes gave Zio and I time to take a look at the nearby eating offerings of Port Chester. Besides El Tesoro II, which claimed two Central American countries; Guatemala and Salvador as the cuisines featured, there were a couple of Peruvian diners, a chili dog dive, and, across the street where a monstrous, correctional facility-like mall stood, there was an Applebee’s and a Buffalo Wild Wings.

Two of Port Chester’s inviting eateries.

We passed a window where numerous colorful parrots frolicked at the Bird House of Westchester, and then entered El Tesoro. There were birds inside the tropically adorned restaurant as well, but these were chickens and they were stuffed.

One of the several stuffed hens at El Tesoro.

Our waitress, who Eugene, executing one of his lamer lines, asked if she claimed Italian heritage, revealed that she was, in fact, not from Guatemala or Salvador, but that she was from Honduras. And if there was a difference in the cuisines of the three Central American countries, she wasn’t telling us.

Guatemala or Salvador? Which is it?

From the Salvador-labeled section of the menu were the well-known pupusas which we celebrated many years ago at a restaurant in Washington Heights that still survives called: La Cabana Salvadorena.  (See Pupusa Love). As I vaguely recall, the pupusas were worth loving there and we had to try a few at El Tesoro.

No love for the pupusas of El Tesoro.

Also from the Salvador starters section were the tamales while, representing Guatemala, were the rellenitos, which Gerry bravely ordered. Our waitress described them as platanos (plantains) stuffed with beans. What she didn’t say what that the rellenito was of the sweet variety, deep fried and then sprinkled with granulated sugar? Even with the presence of the beans, you really just wanted to take the thing and dunk it in your coffee; it was that sweet.

Maybe Dunkin Donuts should consider adding the rellenito to their doughnut menu?

Eugene ordered the garanchas; tiny tortillas topped with beef, cheese and the Guatemalan version of pico de gallo, which, after sampling one, did not live up to the more familiar Mexican version.


As we proceeded to sample the food, what we tasted, unfortunately were mediocre replicas of the major influences from the north (Mexico) and the south (South America).

The carne guisada I ordered, familiar to me at other Latin restaurants as beef stew, was, here, more like ropa vieja; shredded beef in a very bland tomato sauce.

“It’s mushy,” Zio commented about the tamale. “I like Mexican tamales better.” The tamale was dense with corn masa and stuffed with pork but Zio’s description was accurate. It was mushy.

Salvadorian tamale

Mike from Yonkers did not expect potatoes added to the rice in his pollo saltado, the Guatemalan attempt at the Peruvian specialty. “Too much starch,” he said and, in a rare display, put his fork down well before his usual meticulous cleaning his plate.

Pollo Saltado

Zio had ordered the pollo frito in what the menu described as “our secret seasoning.” He offered a wing and/or leg of the chicken to any takers, but there were none. “The fried chicken was really dry,” he confessed to me on the way back to the city.

I’m not sure what was expected of the chile relleno Gerry ordered, but again, what I tasted of it was a poor man’s version of the Mexican dish. The flavor, or lack therof, just not what any of us were accustomed to.

Things weren’t all lackluster at El Tesoro. The Famosa beers were cold and delicious. The service was cheery. Even the incessant screeching of a toddler added life to the otherwise drab Port Chester experience and, not that it was what I was seeking, made me feel right at home.

Pupusa Love

26 Oct

Still in our first year, but now on our second round of picks, Charlie found La Cabana Salvadorena “in the heights”…several years before the musical of the same name opened. I remember driving up and around the hills past the George Washington Bridge trying to find parking. I also remember how glad the owners and chef were to have us at his restaurant. Something that happened quite often throughout our years doing this.

La Cabana Salvadoreña
4384 Broadway
Washington Heights

Having gone full circle; everyone fulfilling their responsibility and picking a restaurant within our still vague guidelines, it was back to Charlie, who led off last February with the Puerto Rican restaurant in El Barrio, La Fonda Boricua. Keeping in that Latin vein and also keeping us in Manhattan, Charlie chose La Cabana Salvadorena, on 187th street and Broadway, the northern fringe of Washington Heights. The food promised was not just Latin, but Salvadoran, a cuisine none of us had the pleasure of previously experiencing. I admit having come close while living in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. During my seemingly endless time behind the wheel of my wreck of a car, I would pass establishments advertising pupusas. These establishments were called pupuserias. Though always somewhat adventurous about food, I never had the nerve to pull up to a pupuseria in Los Angeles. Hot dogs were a big part of my subsistence while I struggled in Los Angeles and I ate all kinds there including a very memorable one called an Oki Dog, two hot dogs

wrapped in a big burrito-sized flour tortilla and stuffed with pastrami, cheese, chili and onions. The Oki Dog experience I still remember fondly as a youthful indulgence akin to experimenting with a hallucinogenic drug. I had no limits when it came to hot dogs, but I could not get myself to try a pupusa. There was the connotation with something cuddly that just turned me off.  So here, many years later on a cold damp autumn evening in Washington Heights, I think I was ready to try a pupusa.

Zio and I were the first to arrive at the brightly-lit restaurant. We choose the big round table next to the “Real Women Have Curves” poster. Our waitress came up immediately to begin taking our orders. I held out my fingers in the right manner to alert the waitress that there would be six of us and ordered a Presidente beer. The waitress obviously knew little or no English and Zio and I pointed to the menu helping her to understand. And looking at the menus, which were under the glass on the table, we noticed different variations of the same menus. One item on all the different menus, however, was consistent: pupusas.

After struggling to find parking, the others soon all arrived. I warned them that getting help on what to order from the exotic menu might be difficult considering the language barrier with our waitress. No sooner had I said that than Raul came to our rescue. Raul, it turned out, had no financial attachment to La Cabana Salvadorena; he was an electrician and a friend of the owners. He offered his bilingual services to us along with his expertise in choosing the best items on the menu. We gave Raul free reign as what to order for us. We trusted him implicitly. And Raul, despite being from Honduras rather than Salvador, delivered. He came back with pupusas, rice and corn flour patties, stuffed with beans, pork, and cheese. He picked a mixed seafood ceviche for us, a few platters of “Plato Tipico” a combination plate of typical Salvadoran food; thinly pounded steak, steamed chicken tamale in the husk, a cheese pupusa with “loroco” a grated cheese, sweet plantains, and a “tortilla;” an omelet with chorizo and onions. We engulfed it. Consumed it. Devoured it all including the tasteless cabbage salad that came in a jar and was on every table. While we were eating, the chef, who also spoke little or no English came out to check on our progress. Looking somewhat like the actor, Edward James Olmos, the chef was impressed with our work, though upset that Raul had neglected to order us the boiled beef, also a Salvadoran specialty. Next time, we promised. He went away smiling and satisfied the gringos were pleased.

As with most of our experiences, dessert was limited here as well. We all sampled a piece of what seemed like fried dough in sugar syrup. Eugene immediately proclaimed the meal as his favorite of the seven we had experienced. And it certainly fulfilled our original aim; even with beers and other drinks, our bill came under $20 per person. We were getting pretty good at this.

I returned to La Cabana Salvadorena recently.  I was glad to see that pretty much nothing had changed in the eight years since I’d last visited. They had no website and there were no stickers from Zagat, Yelp, Citysearch or anywhere else on their windows. The awning, small front counter, and dining room, with the exception of the “Real Women Have Curves” poster being gone, was exactly as I remembered it. But best of all were the prices—still frozen at 2002 levels.

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