Sitting near the kitchen at Taqueria and Restaurant Familiar in Richmond, I heard a sound that made me shush my tablemates: a rhythmic patting, quiet and wet. Listen, I whispered. They're making their tortillas by hand.
It's not a sound you hear often in restaurants around the Bay Area. A few places make their own tortillas -- you can always feel the lighter, rougher texture in your mouth and taste a sweetness missing from commercial tortillas. But most of these restaurants use tortilla presses. Not many pat the masa out and griddle it to order.
My friends and I had decided to drive up San Pablo to check out a couple of the little taquerias scattered along the strip: Taqueria & Restaurant Familiar and Taqueria La Bamba, located two blocks apart. It's easy to miss both places: cinderblock walls, hand-lettered signs, and absence of windows don't do much to lure in the uninitiated. But they offer something a lot of folks want: straightforward, home-style Salvadoran food.
Taqueria and Restaurant Familiar is a spare, sit-down restaurant with tables covered in plastic and an indoor garden of plastic flowers. Tapestries depicting El Salvador in brilliant colors are tacked to the walls, and the placemats are laminated pictures from tourist brochures. Still, it's friendly, and the staff is attentive. Patrons at different tables chat with one another between bites. A smiling five-year-old delivers as much of each takeout order as he can carry from the kitchen to the cashier. Familiar is owned by Luis Muñoz, his sister Norma Muñoz, and Leming Vigil, a trio of Salvadoreños from the northwest corner of the country.
As if they're afraid Salvadoran food alone won't keep them in business, both Familiar and La Bamba serve the Mexican antojitos we've come to expect from taquerias: California-style burritos (regular and super), tacos, tortas, nachos, enchiladas. At Familiar we tried a few, like quesadilla zuiza, a crisped flour-tortilla envelope enclosing a good balance of cheese, chicken, and salsa.
Large -- huge, actually -- dinner platters come with rice, loose and meaty refried beans, iceberg lettuce "salad" and two of the fresh tortillas. We skipped the Salvadoran steak and garlic shrimp and tried the deep-fried whole pompano. Boy, was it deep-fried. We had to chew through the brown, crunchy exterior to get at the nuggets of white meat underneath.
We had more success with such especialidades Salvadoreñas as fried ripe plantains, all caramel and butter in the mouth, served with refried beans and sour cream. Plantains also appeared in the dessert empanadas, in which plantain puree was shaped into little turnovers stuffed with rice pudding and deep-fried until the fruit's sugars turned black and crispy. Then, of course, we had to try the pupusas.
Pupusas are griddled four-inch masa cakes stuffed with jack-style cheese, roast pork, or a combination of the two. They're served with a pureed, tear-inducing tomato salsa and a chile-flecked cabbage slaw, crunchy and tart with lime. The slaw provides an essential counterpoint to the soft, starchy cakes.
I always feel a little guilty ordering pupusas at Salvadoran restaurants. I've tried other dishes -- the big-bucks platters, the large, hearty soups -- but I keep coming back to the pupusas, coincidentally the cheapest item on the menu at $1.50 (Familiar) or $1.75 (La Bamba) a piece. I never have to order more than two.
I found the pupusas at both Familiar and La Bamba to be fresh and tasty, mostly because the slaw excelled. Sorry, vegetarians, but cheese pupusas are a little bland; they need more salsa and slaw than those stuffed with pork. You might try the cheese pupusas with loroco, a Salvadoran flower, but don't expect much, either -- the flavor in the frozen, imported flowers they use in the States is almost imperceptible.
Though the counterperson at La Bamba swears the restaurant is unconnected to Taqueria Familiar, the menus are eerily similar. Both serve the same round yellow-corn tortilla chips with the same chunky salsa fresca in the same oval plastic baskets. Who's copying whom? La Bamba, owned by Carmen Maria Torres, has the prior claim. It has been open for eleven years, while Familiar has only been around for eighteen months.
I had written off La Bamba because of its exterior. But a Salvadoran cook who works with a friend gave it his seal of approval, so we tried the taqueria on a busy Sunday afternoon. La Bamba's interior is almost as bare as its cinderblock walls -- poured concrete floors, a few menu signs on the walls, pint-size picnic tables with benches packed around the small room. But while the restaurant is ramshackle, it's not dirty or derelict, and the sizeable line of people ordering food never dwindled. The sky was so blue that day that we had to sit on the tiny covered patio area where we could admire it. We paid for our sunlight by missing out on the show in the open kitchen, where five cooks sautéed meat, assembled burritos, and yes, patted out tortillas and pupusas.
The taqueria offers a few more items than Familiar, and most are realized with a bit more panache. We tried a trio of soft-shelled tacos to get a sense of the way the kitchen treats meat. La Bamba, like Familiar, lacks a grill; the cooks sauté everything in pans and on the griddle, so the meats lacked the characteristic char of Mexican taqueria fare. But they had good flavor nonetheless. Tongue came with a sprinkle of chopped cilantro and white onions, top-notch carnitas were coated in a spicy chile relish hinting of lemon zest, and meaty shreds of braised chicken topped rice and a dollop of salsa.
I ordered a Salvadoran tamale to compare it with the one I tried at Familiar. Disintegrating on their banana-leaf shells, both tamales were made from a velvety, soft masa harina with the scent of real lard. Both times, though, I ate the intoxicating masa and pushed aside the fatty, bland meat within, deciding I prefer more flavorful Mexican tamales. Sorry, El Salvador.
La Bamba had one major problem: either the cooks smoked three packs a day or they were raised in the salt mines. Salt overwhelmed the shrimp in the tostada de ceviche, a mountain of limed-up shrimp mixed with tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. It marred the delectably tender chunks of tongue. Grains of salt were visible on the perfectly cooked slices of steak from our carne asada platter. We kept running back to the counter to get more water.
But it didn't affect my favorite dish of the entire excursion: the Guanaco plate. ("Guanaco" is to Salvadoran as "Yankee" is to American.) The Guanaco plate brought together all the delights of the Salvadoran kitchen: one pupusa, pulled so fast off the griddle that it deflated on my plate; a couple slices of fried plantain; one pork tamale; thumbs-up refried beans and guacamole; and crisp, starchy fried yucca (cassava) winningly paired with crunchy fried chunks of pork.
And the tortillas? Heartachingly perfect -- like slices of bread just pulled from the oven, so fresh and tender that butter would defile their purity. You've got to try these tortillas, I exhorted my companions, first at Familiar and then at La Bamba. No, really, you've got to try them while they're hot.