We drove east up Washington Boulevard and had to turn around twice because we didn’t see it, but how we missed the carnival confetti paint job on the building, I have no idea – hot pink, canary yellow, lime green, and turquoise, with a clock tower that screams Club Tropical under a small cartoon-y palm tree. We had found Con Sabor, an El Salvadorean restaurant and club in Culver City.
We were there for lunch, so the colorful paint-job outside looked innocent and playful by day. But I could only imagine Con Sabor’s transformation (just like mine) once the sun goes down. Just inside the front door, there is a full bar to the left. At lunchtime, there were already a few patrons sitting there, though they looked like they hadn’t moved from the night before. Table seating is on a raised platform to the right and rear, and by night, these must be the VIP tables, overlooking the dance floor. It was empty, the dance floor, that is, but who does flamenco at 11:45 in the morning? There were a few groups sitting in the booths against the wall and in the corner. At night, these must be for the uber-VIP. The ones who can come in through the back door ;)
I had never eaten food from El Salvador and didn’t really know what to expect from Con Sabor. Latin cuisines are among my favorites, but though some of the countries share similar spices and flavors, other countries can be completely different. I like them all from the oily, vinegary, fishy cured tapas of Spain to the shellfish and French fries of Peru, to the black beans and platanos of Brazil and Cuba, and even to the homestyle Ecuadorian cooking of an ex-boyfriend’s mother, but that whole melodramatic saga could be fodder for its own blog. LOL! Of course, Mexican is a given, but I was raised on Tex-Mex in San Antonio, so the truly authentic stuff like tacos de lengua from the taco truck up the street and regional Oaxacan still take some getting used to. El Salvadorean could be a slightly different version of the Mexican food I’ve been eating, or it could be chile-spiced fois gras (cómo se dice “duck liver” en español?) I had no idea.
Names of dishes on Con Sabor’s menu are in Spanish, and thank goodness for Señora Jones at BHMS, because even without the English descriptions underneath, I would have been able to figure out what everything was. There are huevos, ensaladas, sopas, pollo, carne de res, mariscos, and the one that I had heard but did not know, pupusas. Con Sabor’s claim on the wall out front in electric lime green is “PUPUSERIA,” and if Señora Jones taught me anything at all, it was that “-ia” attached as a tail means “place of.” Con Sabor is a “place of pupusas,” so of course, we had to order one.
Even though there were quite a few people in the same color Polo shirt hovering around the bar area, sashaying in and out doors that must have led to the kitchen, and shuffling around the register at the hostess stand that had two large clear plastic vats with unidentified liquids (I forgot to ask what it was), there must have been only one person dedicated as a server to the dining room. She was slow to greet to us, slow to bring out an iced tea the size of Long Island (size only, not contents, though I was tempted), and slow to take our order. But she finally came over to drop off a small basket of tortillas, and before she could escape, I announced we were ready to order.
I asked her what a pupusa is. She told us, but I couldn’t quite understand at first because she was so soft-spoken, perhaps partly because she’s just soft-spoken, and partly because she paused and hesitated on almost every syllable, somewhat uncomfortable speaking English. She had said that a pupusa is a tortilla with cheese inside. “Like a quesadilla?” I asked her. She said no, not like a quesadilla. The cheese is inside the tortilla, she clarified with gestures. “Like a quesadilla?” I asked again. She said no, but then she must have sensed my complete “duh?” air. She nodded. Yes, like a quesadilla.
You know the annoying customer that makes you work for your tip? That was me at Con Sabor, but not on purpose. I’m just ig’nant like that, and asked her what each kind of pupusa is. She explained – queso (well, I already knew that), queso con loroco (loroco is a plant native to Central America), queso con frijoles, revueltas (pork), chicharron (different kind of pork; different how? pork skin), revueltas con todo, calabaza, and pollo. After all her patient explanation, I ended up ordering a simple pupusa de queso. She might have been annoyed with me (I would have been), but she didn’t show it.
She was absolutely right. Pupusas don’t even look like quesadillas. I had already noticed that the tortillas our server had brought to the table were different from the much flatter, more brittle corn tortillas I was accustomed to in Mexican restaurants. Con Sabor’s tortillas are slightly smaller in diameter, at about five to six inches across, but thicker, and it seems, made from a finer grind of masa (corn flour), making it doughier and a little chew
ier. They were more similar to pita bread rather than tortilla.
Pupusas are made from the same base dough as a tortilla. However, unlike a quesadilla, or even a Mexican gordita, in which tortillas are cooked first then folded over a filling, pupusas are made by fully encasing the filling with uncooked dough, flattening, then grilling on a stovetop called a comal (learned that from Señora Jones, too). I’d say a pupusa is closer in technique to a tamal (except for the corn husk wrapper) than a quesadilla.
The single pupusa on the plate looked like an even thicker version of the tortillas that were in our basket; there is something inside. My knife met with just the slightest bit of resistance a nanosecond before it made that barely perceptible crack through the outermost layer that had been crisped and charred by sizzling fat on the skillet. When I cut it all the way open, it released an ivory-colored cheese that looked like it wanted to come spilloozing out, but a network of tiny vegetables held it back so that it bulged outward in glistening bubbles from that first long cut open, but never quite hit the plate. I cut a corner off the now half-moon to take a bite, the same crispy crack of the tortilla, the same almost-ooze of the cheese, and it tasted exactly like it looked. Incredible. Perfect. Balanced. Delicious. I’ve had my first pupusa and have been spoiled by it. I’ll never be able to enjoy a plain-old imperfect plebeian quesadilla again.
I felt fulfilled, but we still had our main lunch entrees coming. They were good, but nothing as extraordinary as the pupusa. Bistec Encebollado is a thin piece of beef covered with sliced onions. The beef had been cooked very well-done, and it was difficult to ignore how tough it was, even with the small bowl of thin, liquidy sauce that made the beef a little less dry. Camarones Entomatados are shrimp cooked with tomatoes (entomatados) and other vegetables, which was overwhlmingly celery-y. The shrimp, too, were cooked well-done, leaving them tough and rubbery.
Both dishes came with arroz, fried platano, and a black bean and rice mixture that I guess is what the menu calls casamiento. I looked up casamiento in my trusty Spanish-English dictionary and only found that it means “marriage,” so that was sort of useless. Marriage of beans and rice? They were all okay, made better with a douse of the sauces in the small bowls, but still, paled in taste comparison to the pupusa. Not only could I never eat another quesadilla, but I couldn’t even truly enjoy the rest of my El Salvadorean lunch.
If I am ever in this area, I would go back to Con Sabor, perhaps for a dinner to catch all the flamenco and other dance action. But given that my days are numbered in the Culver City area, I may have to find an alternative for El Salvadorean. If it’s just a pupuseria, hey all the better. :)
Con Sabor Club Tropical
8641 Washington Boulevard
Culver City, CA