Wednesday, February 16, 2022

El Salvador Day 4: (Part1) Izalco Bound

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

This is not really "Day Four", as I was only in El Salvador for three days, total, and I have a bunch of reporting still to write. It's my perennial curse: whenever I set up any sort of organizational structure for myself, I am inevitably compelled to break it).

But let's keep pretending each report is a day, and that it's all playing out in order (it's not).

As everywhere, eating in the big main city has its advantages (everything's close together, addresses are easily found) and its disadvantages (crass commercialism means cutting corners, so you don't get fully traditional methods and ingredients). My time here was short, but I felt compelled to do at least one trip out of town, aside from my quick scoot down and back to La Posada for quesadilla.

If you live in a place with some Salvadoran immigrants, you've already heard the term "Izalco", because they tend to name restaurants for it (like South Indian restaurants are often named "Updupi" and Cambodians' are "Angkor Wat"). I had two grails to hunt down in the Izalco area, a couple hours west of San Salvador. And on my way out of town, I had a few other stops to make, starting with Mercadito de Merliot in Santa Tecla.

Mercadito de Merliot

This is the big food market. And by "big", I mean small. Hence mercadito, the diminutive of mercado. So they know it. If this were a big city in Mexico, the main food market would occupy several football fields, and boast far more diversity and richness. This gives you some idea of why Central Americans are resentful of big, fat, comparatively rich and culturally dominant Mexico, the hegemonic "America" of the region (like nesting dolls, you can drill down even further and learn that, to the rest of Central America, El Salvador itself is the local fat Mexico - you'll find pupusas in Guatemala and Honduras, but they're not happy about it).

Mercadito de Merliot is still way larger than any single food market in NYC, so stand tall, El Salvador! Up front there's a nice produce section (nothing too crazy-unusual, but perhaps February isn't primetime), and then a cookware section, a cheap-plastic-Chinese-crap section, a haircut section (with multiple independently-owned stalls), and then, in the back, a bustling, hustling food court lorded over by the venerable Cocteles y Mariscos Mary.
Note that I'm using Google Maps places links for all these places; Yelp has spotty coverage outside USA, where Google Maps is more popular for the wider WhatsApp world. Even in Portugal (did you catch my reporting there?), while there's some Yelp coverage, it's all tourist places, so even there I preferred Google for better coverage and more native perspectives.
99% of foodies would make a beeline straight to Mary, the famous bastion. But I don't work that way. I bumble and stumble, following yens and irrational hunches, always blithely willing to get it wrong in the greater pursuit of serendipity. You can't force it. Like a string, serendipity can only be pulled, never pushed.

I lack the American drive to target and grab trophies. I don't need to hit all the best places and have the best time. I'm ok hunkering down winsomely in the back corner of some anonymous joint (what the hell is he doing THERE???). In fact, I get anxious with the scavenger hunt approach, darting around to acquire a list of pre-approved TREMENDOUS EXPERIENCES. I've renounced tremendous experience, having devoted my life to nano-aesthetics.

So you go have yourself a rip roaring time tearing through shrimp cocktails at Cocteles y Mariscos Mary. I'll be the lonely older dude hunkered down at the wrong booth eating the wrong thing. This is one reason I often travel and eat alone: my approach drives companions crazy. I frequently appear to be losing.

As I entered I noted these majonchos (member of the Bluggoe subgroup of bananas according to this reference). It's one of the few cooking bananas that can also be eaten raw, and it's flavor-packed..
I glimpsed these shimmering potatoes walking by a neglibily small and anonymous concession. I immediately had to have them.
The proprietor was not wholly comfortable with the eager gleam in my eye, and tried to sort me out quickly in terms of the actual real food I'd be ordering (you can't just have potatoes; you can't steal the bait). Really, all she had was caldo de gallina - hen soup - and it smelled good, so I said "yes" and sat down. She brought me my bait potatoes and a large bowl of soup that seemed simple almost to a fault, and I began patiently spooning, very well-aware that my itinerary for the day included a two hour drive for El Salvador's finest hen soup.

So I'm a lousy chowhound. I'm making mistakes. But you know what? I've been doing this for a long time, and I know it's at least possible that this anonymous, severe woman, in her otherwise unpatronized little booth, might make even better caldo de gallina than the famous place, which would make for a great story and memory. Or else, maybe not, and I'll have established a useful baseline for myself. It's all process, that's all!

So I not only ate the soup, but finished it, sensing that it would hurt her feelings if I didn't, and I try - harder than I let on - to police the happiness level in my small corner of the universe (more on that in a future report).

The soup was lovely but not exemplary. It came with tortillas, indistinguishable from the fat, pillowy Guatemalan type.
I also ordered a tamal de elote - the paradoxically dense-yet-fluffy fresh corn tamal (naturally sweet from corn kernals, not corn meal) made only by Salvadorans. It was served with crema that made me guffaw out loud. I've spent years explaining to Americans that while Hispanic crema is usually translated to "sour cream" on menus, it's not as sour as sour cream. Well, this really was. And it was great. The crema and the potatoes were the best part (why oh why didn't I think to dunk the former into the latter? Yet another failure to be tremendous!).

The tamal was exactly like I've had from good immigrant places abroad. Lousy versions are dyed bright yellow and sweetened to compensate for lousy corn, but these were good ones, very natural tasting. The potatoes, I don't remember. Chowmnesia. I fear I may be going feral.

Oh, and for those tracking curtido, here is her better-than-restaurant but worse-than-grandma version:
I handed back the empty bowl and said I loved the soup. "Really?" she asked. It meant something to her. I was her only customer, and she was cooking her heart out and needed reassurance. Oh, thank goodness I'd finished it.

Needing to conserve what little remained of my appetite, I didn't eat another bite in the market. But I did pass the Vendor of Frizzy Fried Meats:
....and took-away some simple market cookies.
...including very nice mereingue kisses, flavored with slightly smoky doce de leche
Outskirts Spazzing

On my way out of town, I stopped at The Macacos Club in Nuevo Cuscatlan, a wonderfully quirky cafe/hang-out full of carefully selected vinyl records (tons of Andy Williams - remember him? - and 1960s kitsch Iberian accordian groups) and vintage radio equipment and Barbies. They serve a few select bottles of weirdo alternative craft beer and fancy coffee.

But it's always the same problem with such places: the interesting, quirky dude who put it together as a labor of love doesn't want to hang out there all day every day(this isn't a 1975 comic book store). So he hires some affable 23 year old who knows nothing about vinyl records or vintage radio equipment or Barbies, transforming the place into a generic turnkey operation amid The Owner's Quirky Crap.

How many times have I quaffed great beer in a bar where neither bartenders nor managers knew a damned thing about beer? How often do jazz club workers know anything about jazz? It's like hanging out in the EPCOT Scotland pavilion, hoping to discuss the Highlands and shortbread with experts, and finding that the place is run by fuckless pot-bellied Floridians. THAT'S MY WHOLE LIFE, RIGHT THERE.

I was waiting for Cacique to open up. I'd decided it looked cool in my pre-trip online scouting session (check out the photos at that link). I had my eye particularly on a shot of papas con camarones, which is not a normal thing in El Salvador nor elsewhere.

Like The Macacos Club, Cacique is a rare sales point for the nation'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.

So I relaxed a good long while at The Macacos Club, reading and drinking coffee and beer and stalling until Cacique's opening time, even though it was a terrible idea to devote precious stomach space to capricious papas con camarones with a full day of eating ahead of me. But, again, I am not compelled to optimize such things. I have renounced TREMENDOUS EXPERIENCE. I take it as it comes, screw-ups and all. To an American, I am a frightfully docile loser. And yet, at the end of the day, I often will have eaten as well or better than anyone alive. Strange how that works. I honestly can't spot the trick, myself.

I knew Cacique was close by. I got in my car and tried to locate it in this scruffy no man's land, to no avail. Finally I realized the place was 75 feet away from The Macacos Club, in the very same shopping strip. Doh! More poor optimization. More low tremendousness. But finally it really dawned on me that I'd soon confront a second enormous bowl of caldo de gallina, plus I was losing daylight. So off I sped to the western wilderness outside distant Izalco.

Go forward to El Salvador Day 4: (Part 2) Pre-Colombian Delights

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