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Pupusa Platter

Misty's found a new place to score some disk-size delights...and some darn good eggs, too.
Monday Nov 03, 2008.     By Misty Tosh
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

The thing that caught my eye was the funky sign. Here I was, scouting around Lawrence Avenue looking for a bite to eat and I see this sign that says "Mekeni: Taste of Pampanga." Ohhhh, what's this I wonder? I would love to taste Pampanga, whatever the heck that is. After I peeked around the dusty door leading inside, I quickly grabbed a menu and realized it was Filipino food. And, further, it was a buffet. But, I took one look at the steaming hot box full of sauced-up meats and determined that my suddenly sensitive belly was better off across the street at the El Salvadoran joint on the corner.

Pupuseria Restaurant Cuscatleco had one lone couple chowing down when I plopped into my corner booth. I could see their plates of homemade food in the mirrors that made up the East wall. Lots of chunked-out pupusas is what I'm talking about. In typical El Salvadoran form, I immediately set to ordering some of those, as well as a hen tamale. Not to leave my good friends, the Mexicans, out of the bunch, I requested a nice big plate of huevos rancheros as well.

The poor cat running the place was a little taken aback by my voracity with the menu, but no matter. What do we have in this world, if we don't have variety…and lots of it? While I waited on my bounty to roll out, I cleaned up a basket of just-fried crispy tortillas dunked in salsa. Of course, I was full after that. So sad. That word—full—never stops me though. I just keep going and going. I act like I will never, ever see food again in all my days. I also sat and pondered what the word cuscatleco meant. Turns out it can easily be flip-flopped with the word Salvadoran. Oh, that makes sense.

The hen tamale showed up first. It was wrapped up tight in a banana leaf and steamed to a super soft mush, which I usually don't favor. But somehow, the Salvs do it right. These pockets of masa and tender hen turn out much wetter than their Mexican cousins, but once you slather them with a smidge of crema and a touch of green salsa, you can sorta suck them down like a bowl of mush. No chewing at all, just swallowing and inhaling of flavors.

The waiter/busboy/cashier brought out my crispy little pupusas next and soon followed with a big plate of eggs over-medium buried in ranchero sauce. Now, I've said it before and I'll say it again. The key, and I mean the absolute master key, to fried pupusas (small, hand-slapped corn patties stuffed with all sorts of goodies) is the slaw-like condiment they are always served with. It's called curtido and it's a glorious mix of pickled cabbage, carrots, onions, oregano, etc...all shaved down and floating around in this tasty vessel of vinegar. A bad curtido can literally make or break a pupusa. That said, I've never tasted a bad curtido. If you're claiming to be an El Salvadoran restaurant and you've not mastered a good curtido, you shan't be open for long.

That brings me to the huevos rancheros. Why is it always better at El Salvadoran restaurants than it is at Mexican ones? Not sure, but I wolfed down that plate of eggs, beans and rice like I'd not eaten all day long. There's something about the ruby-red ranchero sauce and the way the eggs are just barely fried, with the yolk still dripping. Any way you look at it, this spic-n-span corner El Salvadoran dive is well worth the trip to dingy Lawrence.

THE FINAL RAVE: Get this, two days later one of my Filipino friends invites me to lunch and says that I must, must, must try Mekeni, the best Filipino food in town. Next time, for sure.

LISTEN TO IT: Podcast: El Salvador
Tune into this interesting podcast about a chick who meets an ex-guerilla turned El Salvadoran tour guide. Man, the world never ceases to amaze me.

WATCH IT: "Salvador"
This gritty movie (directed by Oliver Stone) about a down-on-his-luck journalist's plight in war-torn El Salvador made me want to hit the road immediately to Central America. We all go for different reasons, kids.

EAT IT: Pupusas They are addictive. They are cheap. And, the ones filled with pork rinds are utterly enchanting. But, you must remember the curtido.

GET CRAZY WITH IT: 4th World Love You can donate $100 to my new NGO and win an all-expenses-paid-trip to Indonesia this spring to volunteer in our new community center there. What does that have to do with El Salvador? Nothing at all, but who doesn't want a free trip to exotic Indo?

 

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