The Saturday-night pomade on the solo diner at the table next to me smelled the way roses would if they could sweat. It made the chicken-filled Salvadoran pastelito I'd delved into seem somehow extra-delicious, hyping the lushness at the heart of the homely little turnover buried under a thick blanket of shredded iceberg and shiny crema.
Of course, there's no guarantee that if you show up at Oakland's Pupuseria Lupita you'll catch a whiff of hair pomade with your little chicken pie. Or even that you'll successfully edit out the menu's Mexican and American dross to reach the nuggets of Salvadoran gold. But Lupita's pastelito would still shine. The ropy cylinder of corn masa along its crimped edge was seriously crispy, and the filling wasn't really about the wispy-looking chicken. Its shredded fibers were merely bulk for the suave chile purée that held them suspended, a sauce with heat that builds, and the bitterness of dried chiles toasted black on the searing griddle known as a comal.
Located near the intersection of Foothill Boulevard and Fruitvale Avenue, an overheated jumble of taco trucks, chop suey takeouts, and clothing shops, Pupuseria Lupita has a whiff of sanctuary. It's a place with a drift-in clientele of families chummy with the owners, single guys who show up for quick bowls of menudo, and the occasional outside-the-'hood straggler jonesing for a hamburguesa.
Tamales mi Lupita, a little truck in an adjacent lot, sells banana-leaf-wrapped Salvadoran tamales: dense, custardy masa with luscious hunks of pork inside. The restaurant itself shares space with Cyber World Cafe, where you can chat online while slurping a smoothie whipped up in a forlorn little bar blender. The collective space is a room where you feel the ghost of former inhabitants, where the vaulted ceiling is clad in old-fashioned acoustic tiles beneath which an ancient-looking mural depicts a Cape Cod lighthouse and white-steepled Puritan church.
Late on a Sunday morning, two sweet-faced eight-year-olds sat at neighboring terminals, blasting terrorists. Their families sat nearby at a pushed-together landmass of tables, a multigenerational assembly in soccer jerseys and wifebeaters.
Such an amiable, well-peopled vibe makes Sundays a good time to sample the menu's solitary Salvadoran breakfast plate, platanos fritos con dos huevos. It's elemental and satisfying: three sweet and starchy fried plantain halves, a puddle of refried pintos, over-easy eggs with firm, waxy yolks, and a spoonful of crema, Central America's delicately sour cultured cream.
Although you can order it anytime, yuca frita con chicharron deep-fried cassava with crispy fried pork makes a damn tasty brunch dish in its own right. The trio of long, tapering cassava hunks were unequivocally right-on, perfectly crisped and dry on the outside, and with flesh that managed to orchestrate some unlikely coexistence of firm and fluffy. Cassava is a thing of unlikely subtlety, but when a kitchen gets the outsides right (no distracting greasiness or taste of rancid fry oil), you're free to fully appreciate the tuber's strange mix of sugar and clay. It's as if a yam and a parsnip both dangled their roots in a small corner of the russet potato's gene pool, resulting in some seemingly indestructible hybrid.
The jumble of heavily browned pork shoulder bits was just as crisp and just as dry, a touch of concentrated roasty in its chewy fibers like the pan drippings from a Sunday roast. A heaping pile of salted, lime-spiked cabbage-and-tomato salad offered some relief from the two seriously dense elements.
But any pupuseria must be judged by its pupusas, and the ones here though limited to just three filling options are pretty good. Plump and slightly crisp, a pupusa filled with queso breathed the fresh, tangy smell of clabbered-milk cheese. It was large and thick enough to let you peel back the masa top crust, so you could load it up with vinegary curtido (cabbage slaw), roll it into a bulky cigar of a thing, and dip it into the little dish of puréed-tomato salsa. Another filled with chicharron, long-cooked pork, had a mashy brown filling like French pork rillettes. Like rillettes, the filling had a browned-in-fat richness, a meaty pomade that satisfied deep carnivorous urges.
Two blocks up Foothill, Pupuseria San Salvador #2 has a significantly longer roster of pupusas. Pupuseria San Salvador #1 is on Seventh Street, near the West Oakland BART station. They have identical menus, a pan-American highway of options running through Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. On a recent afternoon, the mural-wrapped dining room was half-filled with customers chowing on just two or three Salvadoran dishes. An overactive toddler practiced ninja moves above a girl who lay stubbornly prone on a bright red runner. Her mom scolded her lackadaisically in Spanish as she worked through a platter of pupusas, a likely excuse for lukewarm parenting.
Sadly, the pupusas were lackadaisical, too. A pupusa de zucchini con queso had a cheesy filling nicely studded with crisp, green flecks of coarsely grated squash. But its masa envelope was thick and oozed grease. Same with another cheese pupusa, this one flecked with the caper-like cured buds of loroco, a Central American herby vine with edible buds and flowers. Both were more flabby than wonderful.
No matter. The dish to eat here is caldo de gallina criolla, a country-style soup with a charming tendency to wedge itself deep into the crevices between your teeth. It's a double-plate dish: a bowl of cloudy chicken broth filled with big pieces of vegetables, and a plate containing rice and a piece of on-the-bone chicken that'd flavored the broth.
The boiled chicken had come from an older stewing hen, meaning it had firm, stringy flesh. Bad for gnawing, but good for the broth, which had an almost yeasty depth, and so much salt the thin soup seemed practically chewy. The savory brine had seeped into hunks of zucchini and squashy chayote, carrots and green beans, and fragrant sprigs of cilantro. It arrived in a deep plastic bowl with a ring of multicolored roses around the rim. The flowers looked blurry, but the soup they ringed had so much vividness you could almost smell them.