Sunday, February 20, 2022

El Salvador Bits & Pieces

El Salvador Day 1: Strong Start with Grandma Rice Pupusas
El Salvador Day 2: Típicos
El Salvador Day 3: Quesadilla and the Death of Enlightenment
El Salvador Day 4: (Part1) Izalco Bound
El Salvador Day 4: (Part 2) Pre-Colombian Delights

Downshifting my El Salvador reporting from epic accounts to anecdotes and short stories (though there's one epic left - I'm desperately trying to boil down a 5000 word paean to a kooky bakery run by a Japan-obsessed Salvadoran woman, who's never been there(!), yet who opened an astounding little shop which, via sheer force of will and power of imagination, is seriously the most Japanese Thing that's ever existed).

Here are a bunch....

Desayuno Típico

This is (aside from swapping toast in for tortillas) is a very standard breakfast throughout the Hispanic world:
I ate this at hipster Roots Cafe, which also makes a hell of a wonderful cheesecake topped with housemade mixed-fruit marmalade. Oh, hey, I just remembered that I took a picture!
The fact that "this is a very standard breakfast throughout the Hispanic world" makes it seem easily dismissible.

Food writers and experienced chowhounds can't resist prioritizing rarity and novelty over core cuisine, and that's a particularly grievous sin in a place like this. This, once again, isn't France where waiters holler "voila!" as they reveal the spectacular soufflé. Hispanic America sees food as process, as deep tradition.

Just typing those words, I know I sound poised to condescend. But let me remind you that in three of five reports thus far I've described renditions of traditional foods which essentially knocked me unconscious and left me babbling. I've never come close to such an outcome in all my years of eager eating. So, sure, go ahead and try to explain to me how boring these traditional foods are.

"Traditional" only sounds boring because we've lost stuff. Returning home to a place like El Salvador, we slip back into deeper streams. We remember.

I've never blacked out with such frequency before. In fact, I didn't realize what the Izalco yuca had done to me until weeks later, as I organized my thoughts for the write-up. At the time, I thought I'd eaten something tasty, but in retrospect, holy crap, I was wafting around in an altered state the whole rest of that day. It was so subtle and so unexpected that I hadn't recognized what was happening.

Beneath its report, I linked to my account of the Medusa Gruel - a transcendent corn drink I once sipped in Oaxaca Mexico which was probably the greatest thing I ever ate (though Mama Grimaldi's lasagna came close). It nearly left me catatonic (I don't say that in a slick writerly way; I mean it quite literally; my host was about to call a doctor). I think the yuca, the gruel, and the lasagna may be my holy trinity; the top experiences in my lifetime of avid eating.

Dismiss banality at your peril. This is a region of spiritually elevated banality. Yet, all that said, the aforementioned breakfast is actually called desayuno típico. So they're a bit dismissive, too! You cannot out-hip them with your outsider's eye. They have grown self-aware.

The Land of Griddling
Nowhere special. I just took this photo to capture how essential the griddle has become to El Salvador. All the (many) items currently prepared on griddle were formerly - and superiorly - prepared on a clay comal. And, as I've reported, you can still find comal cooking in a few holdout places. But if you're opening a Salvadoran restaurant, you're going to need ample griddle real estate. Because here, griddling is king. Let this photo burn that fact into your retinas.

No Tamales For You!

Cruel twist of fate. You find these tamal trucks in parking lots. (Note: tamale is not a word. Singular = tamal, Plural = tamales.) You look inside and see tons of varieties. You swoon a little. And then it dawns on you that it's all refrigerated.
"Take them home and steam them!" suggested the vendor.

"I don't have a home!" I replied.

"You don't have a home?" she asks, aghast, scanning me from head to toe to verify her initial impression that I was more or less respectable.

"Not within 4000 miles!" I replied.

"Didn't you bring a hot plate?"

"No hot plate!"
What sort of shmuck travels without a hot plate? Having wasted enough time with Mr. Hopeless, the tamal lady sensibly moves on to her next client.

So bring a hot plate!

De Las Gemelas

DLG De Las Gemelas (Facebook link) is one of many twee hipster shiny shops that have popped up in the upscale El Escalón corridor. It's clearly got money behind it, and they're taking no chances with their investment, offering only the most bankable international hits of Instagram baking: macarons, cupcakes, red velvet doodads. You've seen this movie before.

But have you? Sometimes appallingly conformist, trend-mongering places - places tarted up with shiny facades that show they're angling to metastasize into soulless transnational chains - are, despite themselves, terrific. It just takes one bad apple, one weak link, one saboteur cooking with real love rather than focusing on Instagram-readiness.

God bless the good Gemela; the saboteur. The things I tried were killer. A hundred times better than necessary. Do they even realize this stuff doesn't need to taste good? That the people who patronize shiny shops and squee over halogen-lit macarons don't care about quality?

Also: what's with the Oreos? Salvadorans are, for whatever reason, obsessed with them as ingredients. They show up everywhere. No doubt someone in-country is making pupusas with them.

Puente Quemado Upshot

I mentioned two reports ago (in El Salvador Day 4: (Part1) Izalco Bound) that I got great vibes, pre-trip, from El Salvador's smallest brewery, Puente Quemado ("Burned Bridge"), which...
....finds itself in a predicament, being way more sophisticated a craft beer operation than Salvadorans are currently able to appreciate. So those guys do as much education as brewing, hoping to build themselves a market from scratch. Very Fitzcarraldo.
I read up on them, noticing that the only venues serving their beer in the capital were exra cool-seeming places (and I used that to help build my master list for the trip). And I want to emphasize that not one person I encountered has heard of them. Not beer-loving gringos living in-country, not Salvadoran chowhounds fervidly tracking food/drink developments. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Puente Quemado is as under-radar as any find I've ever found.

Their beer is only available in large 22 oz bottles. No smallies, no drafts. So it wasn't convenient to try down there. However, I did bring a bottle of their Saison (a tangy/yeasty/dry farmhouse Belgian style) back home with me, where I've been writing these reports, and, wow, it's way better than I'd ever hoped. This isn't just surprisingly serious craft beer.

The saison I tried is as masterful an example of the style as you'll find outside Belgium. It's not good just for Latin America, it's good for anywhere. World class. Beautifully brewed, even if I'm being extra critical (I actually started as a beer writer, and was one of the first Americans to report on Belgian beer in the late 80s and early 90s).

Aguilar is a wizard, and he's in for some pain trying to draw the attention he amply deserves as perhaps Latin America's best brewer. Salvadorans are at least a decade from being able to grok how good his beer is. They're just beginning to wean from watery commercial lager, entering the "shtick" phase of big, strong, strange beers - i.e. the antithesis of "your father's watery lager". It takes time for a new market to mature to a level of sophistication where refinement and subtlety are prized (and enough premium can be charged to be viable).

If you visit El Salvador and have beer geeks in your life, bring back a bottle of Puente Quemado and stun the bejesus out of them.

Here's the saison:
...and here are some other beers (all photos are stolen), with de rigueur "AWESOME!!!" label art:

There's "golden light", and then there's El Salvador

Lush and blue everywhere you look.

"We will return" scrawled alongside a mural of an active volcano. Hmm. That can mean many things....

Go forward to El Salvador/Tokyo Connection

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