El Tazumal, on San Pablo in San Pablo, may look like a fast-food joint, what with its white molded-plastic tables and the long service counter up front, which by rights should feature a bank of soft-serve ice-cream machines and polyester-wrapped teenagers.
But when you dip your spoon into a soup like El Tazumal's arroz aguado con chipilín, with its massive hunks of stewed pork, green-black chipilín leaves, and chewy rice, the broth you sip evidences a long, gentle simmering. Practically a reduction sauce, the deep, meaty broth may be a touch salty, but it's fragrant with the portobello-kale flavor of chipilín, a Central American herb. This soup is so succulent that you need to squeeze a little lime overtop to call it back from the depths. Slow food indeed.
Ray and Irma Gonzalez own restaurants in San Salvador and San Pablo, traveling back and forth between the two countries to run their international restaurant empire and bringing products from El Salvador to keep the flavors as authentic as possible.
There's no euphemizing away the fugliness of the room, whose walls are covered in sheets of mauve- and sky-flecked white plastic. Think early-1990s Kentucky Fried Chicken -- which was, in fact, the building's original owner before El Tazumal's predecessor, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, took it over four years ago (the Hawaiian fast-food franchise didn't last long). The newest owners have painted the outsides of the building a joyous periwinkle blue, and have hung Mayan tapestries, maps of El Salvador, and a few other mementos over the windows. More significantly, they covered the menu over the counter with brightly colored photos of El Tazumal's Salvadoran specialties.
Use those photos as your field guide. As at 95 percent of the Salvadoran restaurants in the Bay Area, the extensive menu you're given to read lists one-third Salvadoran food and two-thirds Mexican. I know I whine about this every time I review a Salvadoran place, but without fail I glance over the Mexican section once and only once, unable to justify passing up pupusas, atoles, and iguana soup in favor of an enchilada-burrito combo. Since I spotted pupusas, atoles, and soups on most of the other tables, I wasn't alone.
El Tazumal's menu covers breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a few dishes, like the atoles (hot cornmeal drinks that date back to pre-Columbian times), that span all three meals. El Tazumal serves its Salvadoran style atoles in thin coconut shells set on twisted-fiber rings. The atol de chuco, a thick blue-corn porridge with black beans, had the savory blandness of sustenance food, though a dollop of the accompanying chile sauce improved matters. The atol de elote, a thinner drink made with corn kernels cooked in milk, had a sweet, comforting appeal that could double as a cure for depression. A third type, the chilate con nuegados y platanos, doubles as breakfast and dessert -- it's quite the production, a watery, unsweetened porridge with allspice berries floating on top, which you combine with plantains cooked in a cinnamon-dark sugar syrup, with nubbly corn and yuca fritters for dipping.
A couple of additional drink notes: El Tazumal offers both Mexican and Salvadoran horchatas. The former is sweetened rice-milk with cinnamon, the latter a toastier, almost chocolaty rice milk with cinnamon, sesame seeds, and ground morro seeds. Another drink, the ensalada, translates as salad -- a guava-heavy fruit salad, that is, floating at the bottom of a sugared-up soda that glows gold under the fluorescent lights.
It's easy to make a meal out of little dishes, say, ordering a plate of yuca root with chicharron, some fried plantains with refried beans and sour cream, and a mess of corn-based snacks, such as the pastelitos, little half-moons of fried cornmeal stuffed with meat and vegetables, or a Salvadoran style tamal. The tamal de pollo looked nothing more than a Twinkie wrapped in a banana leaf, with a similarly spongy texture and lardless, bland flavor. One of my favorite dishes, the salpicon, could have been described as a salad, snack, or entrée. The cooks ground beef so fine that it looked fluffy, mixed the meat with chopped onions and mint, and served it all with lime segments -- its closest relative, culinarily speaking, might be larb, the Thai ground-meat salad.
And of course there are the pupusas: CD-sized, half-inch-thick cakes of cornmeal stuffed with your favorite combination of cheese, meat, beans, and vegetal-tasting loroco flowers. These are thinner than the average pupusa, and the cakes don't spend enough time on the griddle to earn those blistery brown spots that I love. But El Tazumal doesn't stint on the fillings, especially the pork meat, which is pulled into soft pink threads, or the accompaniments. The pupusas come with a syrup container of a loose tomato salsa and a plastic jar of curtido, a spicy, oregano-laced cabbage slaw, which becomes more and more like sauerkraut the longer it sits, the fermentation ratcheting up its impact. If you've never eaten a pupusa before, you mound the slaw on top of the pupusa -- I love the curtido so much I have some for appetizer and dessert -- and then pour a little salsa overtop.
Entrées that merit photos on the wall of fame include surf and turf (mar y tierra); a fried fish served whole with salad, refried beans, and flavorful Salvadoran rice; and the Salvadoran-style steak slathered in a tangy tomato sauce with sautéed onions and peppers.
Then there was consomme de garrobo, identified as iguana soup by a tiny photo of a lizard floating over the bowl. Did you know that iguana really does taste just like chicken? No joke: I kept trying to come up with descriptive words for the chunks of pale-pink meat at the bottom of my bowl. And though the long-stewed garrobo was slightly richer than thigh meat and slightly tougher, too, I couldn't identify a strong scent or taste. The soup itself provided most of the flavor, a golden, concentrated chickenesque broth brightened up with fresh onions, tomatoes, green bell peppers, chopped cilantro, and a squirt of lime juice at the table. Even if it were made with a good old stew hen I'd order it again. (Eco-foodies will be happy to know that iguana is farmed these days -- "ranched," actually -- across Central America, and often sustainably so, since the lizards prefer to live in the canopies of tropical forests.)
Unless you come for weekday lunch, the restaurant is busy with families, some of them three generations strong. But the family-owned, family-friendly business -- heck, they're just plain friendly -- has a downside. Although El Tazumal claims to close at 9, the servers begin sweeping up by 8:30, and one night we arrived at 8 p.m. to spot a half-full dining room and locked doors. We pressed into the glass, making sad eyes, to no avail. Locked out of paradise again.
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