Cooking with Heart 

Two restaurants demonstrate the special pleasures of rustic Salvadoran food.

Salvadoran restaurants seem to have an inferiority complex. From El Cerrito to Fremont, San Francisco to Pittsburg, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Salvadoran restaurant that doesn't offer Californianized Mexican food in addition to its native specialties. It's a shame, because rustic Salvadoran food has soul enough for everybody, and two restaurants in Contra Costa County have more soul than most.

El Aguacate is a tiny, bustling storefront in the interminable string of strip malls that line Concord's Clayton Avenue. Posters of El Salvador decorate its bare white walls, and rows of plastic plants hang from the ceiling. Soccer balls wrapped in goal netting flank a television set overhead in one corner. Four men in matching orange jerseys sat at the table behind us, intently watching a game; the roar of the crowds formed white-noise barriers between the tables.

My friends and I walked in just after several small parties, and the inundated waitress scurried among the tables to catch up. It took a while to get our menus and place our orders with the smiling, apologetic woman. But soon after our beers arrived -- a reddish-blonde Pilsener and an enormous, watery Regina -- the food started emerging from the kitchen, each item coming straight from the pan or the fryer at blisteringly hot temperatures.

The first to arrive was a pescado al diabolo, a large "grilled" tilapia (given its uniformly golden skin and rigid shape, perhaps griddled) smothered in a bright red sauce of tomato, oil, chiles, and tons of garlic. We pulled the moist white flesh off its bones easily with a fork and rubbed each nugget of fish into the tart, diabolic sauce until only bones, skin, and shiny white plate were left.

The fish was only one of a number of Mexican and Salvadoran platters -- enchiladas verdes, shrimp in garlic sauce, chiles rellenos -- and a small selection of typical Mexican taqueria items on the menu. We ignored anything Mexican to focus on the Salvadoran food.

The cooks hadn't made any chicken tamales -- looser and fluffier than their Mexican counterparts -- or small corn tamales with cream that day, the waitress reported to me dolefully, so I contented myself with other Salvadoran antojitos (small snacks), all sweet and fried. A pyramid of plantains, their exteriors caramelized by the long frying that turned the bananas into sweet, chewy lava, were paired with meaty refried beans and sour cream, a common flavor combination that I still don't understand. A ramekin of Mrs. Butterworth's came with the yucca fritters, two thick golden disks with paper-thin crusts encasing creamy mashed yucca root. For the empanadas, the cooks mashed plantains and molded the dough around cubes of a fresh mozzarella-like cheese. Deep-frying turned the ovals dark brown.

According to the menu, El Aguacate's pupusas are the best in Concord. Since El Aguacate is almost certainly the only Salvadoran restaurant in Concord, this doesn't mean much -- but the pupusas can stand on their own merits. We got one of each of the Salvadoran national dish -- six-inch-round thick pancakes of corn masa stuffed with cheese, cheese with loroco, cheese and pork, or cheese and refried beans. Pupusas are eaten topped with a tangy cabbage slaw and a hot, thin tomato salsa. El Aguacate's were fresh and soft, with enough filling to flavor the starchy exterior. Once we started cutting into them, the soccer crowds faded far into the background.

Finding Pittsburg was harder than finding El Salvadoreño Restaurante a week later. Once Mapquest.com led my companions and myself to Railroad Avenue, it wasn't hard to spot the two-foot-high letters spelling out the restaurant's name across the windows. The ceilings of the large open building are so high that the top half of the room has been painted sky blue. Enormous bottles of Salvadoran beer float up amid the painted clouds like guardian angels, watching over a mural of a woman patting out pupusas to fry on an outdoor griddle.

For a while, we were the only customers, attended to by two formally dressed waiters. A young delivery man occasionally came in to pick up bags of food and then leave, and several couples stopped by for takeout, but the second table didn't show up for a half hour. We started worrying both about the food and about Pittsburg's dining habits. But after dinner, the waiter, actually one of the owners, explained, "This is only our second weekday open."

After more than five years building up a thriving business, El Salvadoreño faced a major crisis: The owner of the building decided to evict the restaurant and sell his property to the City of Pittsburg. The deal came so close to going through that El Salvadoreño closed up on weekdays for eight months to wind up the business and look for a new space in the busier section of the city. Three weeks ago, the landlord gave them a yearlong extension. (They'll probably move afterward.) Word of the reopening is spreading.

William Reyes runs the restaurant with his brother Miuler and several other family members. William is one of the friendliest servers ever -- funny, charming, and used to explaining Salvadoran cuisine to non-Salvadorans.

Not only did he tell my friend all about loroco, the flower that Salvadorans love mixed with melted cheese in their pupusas, he pulled him out of his seat and led him over to the wall where he had posted a small photo of a loroco vine. "Some of my customers say it tastes like peppers and cheese, some say it tastes like potatoes," he told us. Hooked, Dan changed his order to include a pupusa con queso y loroco.

As with El Aguacate, burritos fill half a page of the menu, and many of the items could have come from Sonora rather than San Salvador. We ordered around the Mexican standards, picking out grilled meats, soups, and of course, pupusas. We looked hungrily at all the tempting seafood coctels and ceviches on the menu, but since the restaurant had so few customers we decided to pass them up. After tasting the rest of the food, I wouldn't make the same mistake again -- head chef (and matriarch) Petrona Reyes has an elegant palate and solid cooking technique. Or in Miuler's words, "She cooks from the heart."

Several baskets of thin, crisp chips served with a thick tomato salsa almost ruined our appetites. A plate of pastelitos revived them: Fried to a burnished gold hue, the rounded cornmeal half-moons cracked apart when we bit into them. Inside was a savory mix of ground beef, potatoes, and onions, picked up with a squirt of red chile sauce and a forkful of peppery cabbage-and-carrot slaw.

The slaw, El Salvador's version of sauerkraut and therefore my favorite part of every Salvadoran meal, is as inseparable from pupusas as mustard from soft pretzels. Eating one bite of a starchy, rich pupusa without adding the acidic, crunchy jolt of the slaw would be unthinkable. Generous dollops of the fiery blended-tomato salsa complete the effect. Dan's revised order contained a pork-and-cheese pupusa stacked against another with loroco, served on a large platter with soul-satisfying lard-enriched refried beans, a small green salad, and fluffy Mexican rice.

"What tastes did the loroco call up for you?" William returned to ask.

"Cooked cabbage," said Dan. My tablemate Alison agreed. Both of them preferred the loroco to the pork.

You could see right through to the bottom of my bowl of clear chicken-stock-based shrimp and egg soup. In it floated tomato chunks, red and green pepper slices, butterflied shrimp with their shells left on, and clouds of frothy, fluffy beaten eggs. The shrimp shells infused their flavor into the broth, and the mixture of peppers, tomatoes, and seafood tasted more refined than it looked.

We were surprised when William asked my friend how she wanted her steak cooked, and even more shocked when it arrived the medium rare she requested. I've given up on ordering beef in Latin-American restaurants because the thin steaks invariably come well-done and chewy (as a Yucatecan coworker once explained to me, it's a cultural preference that makes sense given the realities of butchering red meat in the tropics). The juicy steak had been griddled just until the marinade caramelized.

But be warned: Cooking with soul can be a dangerous thing, producing food so rich and hearty it can lead to heartburn all round.

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