In the grand tradition of holes-in-the-wall, the decor at Oakland's Los Cocos Restaurant isn't much to look at. The walls of this eighteen-year-old restaurant are cluttered with Salvadoran kitsch -- wooden coconuts and mangoes, posters of San Salvador, a tapestry of women patting out pupusas. If you bend over really close to the plastic tablecloths, hearts and flags printed all over them, you can smell the bleach the staff uses to wipe them down. And the kitchen fans chug along like a Yugo running on its spare tire. One day my friend Steve, who was seated facing the stove, spent the meal giving me smog updates about the oily haze that would well up from the fryers and slowly dissipate.
Just the kind of place I love.
Although San Francisco's Mission neighborhood has just as many pupuserias as taquerias, the Fruitvale stretch of International Boulevard seems to be Mexican-only territory. The East Bay's Central American community has set up shop out Richmond and Pittsburg way. Which makes Los Cocos, as far as I know, the only Salvadoran restaurant in the neighborhood.
Pity it closes so early. I've been trying to check out Los Cocos for almost a year, but I keep arriving too late; most nights it closes at 7:30. One night last month, though, I finally caught the staff closing up shop and was allowed to take some food home. Once I figured out the schedule, my friends and I arrived at peak time to squeeze into a table, blocked in by multigenerational families sitting around huge heaps of pupusas, four-year-olds darting through the maze of chairs.
I'm sure I freaked out the cook a little on that first night, when I was the only customer in the restaurant, because I just stood at the counter, transfixed by the sight of her making my pupusas. She kept smiling up at me warily, as if worried I'd jump over the counter and demand to help. In short, quick gestures, she'd scoop a ball of masa off a large lump of the corn-lime paste at her station, then pluck off just enough to make it the right size. Then she'd grab bits of shredded cheese, pork, or beans, press them into the center so the ball dimpled in, and close the sides around the filling. A few smacks between her flattened hands, and the pupusa would fly off onto the griddle. Repeat.
Pupusas, pupusas, pupusas. Why am I going on about the pupusas? They're the hamburger of El Salvador, the dish that defines the country's cuisine. Your garden-variety pupusa looks like a golden, oversize hockey puck, slightly oily and crispy around the edges. When you're especially lucky, a little of the stuffing will ooze out onto the griddle and fry into a deep-brown crust. You can order your choice of fillings: For vegetarians, cheese and beans, grated squash, or loroco, a flower bud that tastes a little like artichoke; for meat eaters, shredded chicken or chicharron, meaty pork rinds. My favorite are the pupusas revueltas, containing cheese, pork, and beans. Los Cocos even serves a rice-flour pupusa, which I'd only read about before, and it's okay: slightly chewier than the cornmeal variety, without that sweet, floral aroma of the lime-soaked corn.
You have to eat pupusas straight off the griddle, while the outside is fluffy and the filling molten. Heat can't save a mediocre pupusa from tasting dense and dull -- but Los Cocos' plump masa cakes are anything but. A pupusa isn't a pupusa, however, until you cover it with salsa roja and a vinegary slaw of cabbage, carrots, and onions. Crunchy. Meaty. Puckery. Chewy. Delicious.
Besides the pupusas, the other thing I enjoyed most about Los Cocos is that it has the widest-ranging selection of Salvadoran specialties in the region. All the other places in the East Bay seem to doubt the appeal of their cuisine, so they supplement the platos Salvadoreños with Mexican fare like burritos and quesadillas. Are they bowing to the tastes of their Mexican customers, or the other norteamericanos? There's no need. Salvadoran cuisine is humble, stick-to-your-ribs food, like biscuits and gravy or chicken and dumplings.
And like these dishes, Salvadoran food is simple, but there's a right way to make it and a wrong way. Owner Rosa Alvarados and her cooks definitely stick to the right. For example, I find most Salvadoran-style tamales wet and loose, but in these cooks' hands the masa holds together in its banana-leaf wrapping, just as moist as a good matzoh ball, with chicken and green olives hidden inside. All the platillos Salvadoreños came with rice -- with some flavor, for a change -- and creamy refried black beans, whose chocolaty flavor was enhanced with a dollop of lard.
The platillos include chicken with onions, beef tongue, shredded steak with peppers and onions, and fried fish. The marinade on the carne asada, a thin, well-marinated slice of flank steak, caramelized on the grill, and was just salty enough to set off a fresh tomato-parsley salsa spooned across it. Inside its eggy coating, the pacalla, or palm flower, looked like a big green tassel. The mass of crunchy strands had a slightly bitter vegetal edge, but underneath you could sense an elusive floral aroma.
Salvadorans are also known for their homey soups. A whole chicken breast floated at the bottom of a bowl of caldo de pollo, topped with thin noodles and big slices of carrot and chayote squash. A squeeze of lime was all the meaty, clear broth required to bring it to life.
When we first saw the long red legs floating on top of the caldo de camerones, we thought the cooks had chucked in a crab for good measure. We sent our spoons down to dredge the bottom of the giant bowl and hoisted up two of the largest spot prawns I've ever seen. Their tail meat had gotten a little tough, but they infused the concentrated chicken stock with a lobstery richness.
For dessert, try a slice of the mildly sweet quesadilla -- an eggy cornbread -- or an empanada de leche, which are cheese-filled turnovers made of mushed bananas. Like the restaurant itself, the nubbly brown lumps aren't much to look at. But they're magic on the taste buds.
CALLING ALL PARENTS
When your kid was born, were you worried you'd just been sentenced to three years of culinary exile and fifteen more of eating only at Chuck E. Cheese's and Mickey D's?
Well, I want to know how you've coped. I'm compiling a list of East Bay restaurants that work for both kids and adults -- where your kid is as excited to go as you are. Where you can enjoy a good meal without incurring the wrath of your children, or fellow diners.
Write to me at email@example.com and tell me about your favorite places to bring the kids and why. Be sure to include the ages of your children. I promise to kid-test the top suggestions and report back.
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