I'll go anywhere for a good meal. One close-up picture of a piece of sizzling bacon in a magazine could send me on a whirlwind adventure half way across the world at a moment's notice (this year's food fascinations had me apartment switching with total strangers and spending weeks exploring the side alleys in Barcelona, as well as driving from Chicago to the tip of Baja, Mexico, in a 7,000-mile fish-taco quest).
That sort of attitude can get quite expensive, though, and I've been trying to lead the globetrottin' life every day in Chicago in the meantime. Thankfully, that's pretty dang easy to do with 'hoods like these, and I never worry because there's always going to be a new place sprouting up around the corner if you look close enough.
That said, I've tired of my usual haunts and I'm finding myself going on further jaunts to find new places to eat. I'm trekking up north (La Donatella di Cucina is one of my favorite Italian restaurants and has a magnificent octopus salad); I'm heading down to Pilsen (Nuevo Leon has my favorite version of huevos rancheros for less than $4); and I'm jamming out west (Pollo Campero's chicken is much admired). But this past haul was one for the books: Almost 20 miles (one way) and $5 in tolls (round trip) led me to Pupuseria el Salvador, a tiny hole-in-the-wall practically in Indiana. The trip was absolutely worth it, but this was just for a simple lunch; such drama for a small bite to eat, you know?
Located in the corner basement of a large building, there's nothing in this homey restaurant but three small tables, three hard barstools and three bright-eyed, pretty cooks working in the open, well-lit kitchen. It's exactly my style of eating establishment. I prefer to sit at the bar and watch the girls giggle and slap the hell out of made-to-order pupusas.
An El Salvadoran (and Guatemalan) specialty, pupusas are small, hand-pounded cornmeal pancakes that are stuffed with a variety of tasty fillings like pork, frijoles, zucchini or queso and then fried up on a griddle. They're very cheap at $1.35 each, very filling and when topped with a bit of sour cream and vinegary, oregano-speckled slaw (curtido), they make for a delightful meal. I can literally eat a half dozen in one fell swoop.
The rest of the menu is super-simple and the girls twirl around the closet-sized kitchen grilling up rotund little El Salvadorian sausages (the best way to eat these is to rip them apart and pile a few pieces onto a sour cream slathered cornmeal tortilla, with a smidgen of that slaw), chicharrones (deep-fried pork cracklins'), sweet corn tamales and buttery plantains.
The phone rings off the hook: apparently, most people travel the take-out route. It's fascinating to watch one small girl pound out an order of 20 stuffed pupusas in mere minutes. The service is slow-as-snails, and barely a lick of English is spoken in-house, but if you just point at the menu and nod, expect a great show during your wait.
The Final Rave: Its have a banana raisin bread pudding looks dry-as-dirt in the pan but is nothing but deceiving with its achingly moist interior. Trust me, nothing here is bad.
Keep It Going:
Read it: Salvadoran recipes
Pupusas don't seem that hard to make, so why not give it a go and whip up hundreds for Halloween treats. Could you imagine? A piping hot pupusa for a wee one just looking for a sliver of chocolate. That would by hysterical. If there are no takers, eat them all yourself. Oh, it will be easier than you can imagine.
Drink it: Restaurante el Salvador
The pupusas here are huge, fried 'til golden and mouthwateringly delicious. Another bonus? It's a BYOB, but as the owner says, "Shhhhhhh!"
Eat it: Las Delicias
A little closer to home, this shack-of-a-restaurant has a fantastic variety of pupusas and they've gotten a little more in depth with it, offering up twelve different flavors.
Get crazy with it: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Recently struck by a deadly hurricane, this poor but beautiful part of the world needs volunteers to come down and help out and even a small monetary donation is major. If you do go, lucky you: The fuel for villagers rebuilding their towns is nothing but hand-slung pupusas, grilled sausages and tamales galore.
Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.