Monday, February 7, 2022

El Salvador Day 1: Strong Start with Grandma Rice Pupusas

Olocuilta is what Brazilians would call a "favela"; a rickety hovel of sheet-metal housing dozens, perhaps hundreds, of small-time entrepreneurs. 5% sell cans of soda (hey, it's a living), and the rest make pupusas, the local corn thing - thick, stuffed, and griddled - or, if you're very lucky, cooked on an old-fashioned ceramic comal atop a roaring fire.

Here's some online info about this zone, and here are the words of one Nathan Wise, an American expat who offered local eating advice on Facebook:
When you land you're gonna get transport to San Salvador. About half way there's a town on the highway called Olocuilta. Half of the town is pupusa restaurants. It's where they invented rice pupusas. The story goes when they were building the highway people there fed the construction workers, one day they ran out of corn and some enterprising individual turned rice into a mass for pupusas. People loved em and come from all over El Salvador to eat them there. I usually bribe the cabby with a couple extra bucks and promise of a couple extra pupusas. You can establish a baseline there before you ever get to the city. And it's more likely to have shortcut-free traditional food than the capital.
As you drive into Olocuilta (or even merely veer in that general direction), throngs of proprietors near the highway entrance frantically beckon you. As always, the thing to do is to resist and probe further in. My destination was Pupusaria El Chayito, which I'd scouted out from this video:

They’re situated on a lonely block far from the hustlers. The place is sort of an anti-hustle. There is no sign. No street number. No confirmation that you are where you think you are. You might very well be intruding on a family dinner. In fact, I'm not entirely sure I wasn't.

I took photos of the general setup and, of course, the food. I did not shoot the ancient proprietor/chef de cuisine, who was already terrified of the gringo who'd shown up a half hour before opening to watch her eagle-eyed as she stoked her oven and set up the huge jars of curtido (pickled cabbage). I tried communicating, but she was viscerally convinced of who I was, and a friendly Spanish-speaker wasn't any part of that.

At the end of the meal when I told her, in comfortable though imperfect Spanish, "Madam, that was the experience of a lifetime. I'm so grateful for the experience. I would pay anything for these pupusas, but how much do you want?" She held up three fingers. Three dollars. It was impossible for me to have been saying these things to her, so I simply wasn't. The power of faith! And I couldn't possibly understand her answer, so up went the fingers.

What I really wanted to communicate was that I'd eaten hundreds of pupusas in the past 40 years, some of them good, but this was my very first in El Salvador (and, it goes without saying, by very far the best). And when I inquired about varieties, and she piped up "¡REVUELTA!", a mixture of chicharrones (pork - not just the skin, by the way, that's elsewhere in Latin America) and cheese that is her sole offering, I wanted to tell her that for all those years “revuelta” has always been my go-to pupusa. I am a revuelta man. And I have come home.

But none of that could be communicated. Too much; too crazy; just no. But it’s not like I’m complaining.

These were, indeed, the famous rice pupusas. She doesn't even bother with corn. And if I were to turn around, go back to the airport and get on a plane home, it would have been totally worth it. No question.

While this wasn't the sort of peak eating experience where food gets scary and different, it was absolutely a ten (per my surprisingly useful system for rating foods from 1 to 10). Eyes rolled. Moaning happened. Abuela noticed. I think if I went back three times we'd be best friends.

Move on to Day 2

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