Salvadoran Dilemma 

Kaliente beats its rivals on ambience and service. Now if only ...

Kaliente is the cleanest, most attractive Salvadoran restaurant in the Bay Area. Is that a good sign or a bad one? Depends on whom you ask.

It's certainly a rarity. I've eaten pupusas -- the Salvadoran national dish -- at restaurants where I choked on greasy smog pouring from the griddle, in tiny brick buildings whose only signs were written in duct-tape letters, at three o'clock in the morning in a diner packed with drunks and off-duty mariachis. At my second-favorite pupuseria, I have to inflict my laughable Spanish on the waitstaff to place my order, and each table is stocked with big communal jars of slaw for the pupusas, which is more or less a no-no for the San Francisco health department.

So when I passed by Kaliente twice before spotting it amid the boxy storefronts on San Pablo Dam Road, I thought, all right. Then I walked inside.

Walls sponge-painted in mustard and pumpkin. Blond-wood cafe tables and chairs, all matching. Metal sculptures and a few bits of Salvadoran memorabilia tastefully mounted on the walls. Plastic-coated, graphically designed menus that weren't updated with strikethroughs and Wite-Out. Let me repeat that: sponge-painted walls.

Not that Salvadoran food doesn't deserve a bit of spit and polish. But the cuisine that has made it up north is peasant food, heavy and guileless. It's the kind of food that fills your gut and stanches your craving for home, whether you come from San Miguel, Zacatecoluca, or El Cerrito. To keep their prices down as low as $1.25 per pupusa, most Salvadoran restaurants in the Bay Area sacrifice one thing: charm.

Charm is something that the Chavez family -- mother Maria, who cooks, and daughter Irma, who runs the front of house -- have in spades. Maria's mother owned a restaurant in San Salvador, and the two had dreamed of having their own place in the States for years. They opened in San Pablo in 2000, and then relocated to the new space in El Sobrante a year ago, doubling their space and their business.

Kaliente's menu covers a lot of ground -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for one, and American, Mexican, and Salvadoran cuisines. You got your eggs and bacon, your sandwiches and Caesar salads, your burritos and enchiladas. Near the back are the two most important pages: Salvadoran specialties.

Hidden in the middle you'll find a column for the soup of the day. Don't pass it up. Even the small bowl is large enough to be a light dinner, and it comes with fat, nubbly tortillas pulled straight off the grill. Like an iceberg, the tip of a hunk of tender beef peeked out from the surface of the caldo de res (Wednesday). It floated in a delicate, transparent broth, partly obscured by chunks of braised carrots, cabbage, and zucchini. Richer and meatier was the caldo de pollo (Tuesday), which contained a chicken breast and vegetables simmered in a reduced, golden broth slicked with chicken fat.

Most of the entrées on the last page show up on menus all over Central America. At Kaliente they're served on huge platters with a side salad (romaine lettuce, bottled Italian dressing), flavorful Mexican rice, and wet, porky refried beans. Despite the fancy plates and the colorful garnishes, their quality is on par with more downscale Salvadoran restaurants. The chicken thighs in the pollo adobado, for example, are coated in a spice rub and then grilled just a little too long. The pescado frito was a whole tilapia slashed and deep-fried so that the exterior forms a thick crust. Digging through it with your fork will take a little muscle. A shot of lime juice moistens the white flesh inside and cuts the freshwater taste, the piscine equivalent of gaminess.

But truthfully, I generally skip the entrées at Salvadoran restaurants in favor of the appetizers and pupusas. And Kaliente here showed a little culinary flair. Flourier and subtler in flavor than potatoes, yucca root always needs a little tarting up. The cooks scattered logs of deep-fried yucca, the size of double-wide steak fries, with big pieces of chicharron, a simple salsa, and shaved green cabbage. The chicharron, fried just about as long as pork can be fried, shredded with a little work and lent a little flavor to the crispy fries. A squirt of lime and a bit of salsa helped even more. I regretted not doubling our order of pastelitos, small deep-fried turnovers. The crackly cornmeal crust revealed a molten, savory mass of shredded pork, melted cheese, and sautéed onions and peppers.

Other appetizers weren't as impressive. Salvadoran-style tamales tend to be wetter than their Mexican counterparts, but Kaliente's pork tamal was a little too watery, falling apart on the plantain leaf it was steamed in. I like my plantains -- the fruit, not the leaf -- fried down so far that they melt into squishy, deep-brown lumps of caramel, but the cooks at Kaliente didn't go so far, or the plantains weren't quite ripe enough. As an excuse to eat refried beans and sour cream, however, the firm-fleshed bananas couldn't be faulted.

Through the kitchen doors come the sounds of cooks patting out tortillas and pupusas, a rhythmic smack-smack that sounds like the spanking of a fat, wet baby. Pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador, are palm-sized cakes made with masa (ground corn cooked with slaked quicklime) or rice flour and stuffed with cheese, meats, or vegetables. In El Salvador, they're often cooked in brick ovens; in the States, they're mostly browned on a griddle.

Kaliente's pupusas came out a little anodyne: thinner than some and not browned and blistered the way I like 'em. Loroco, a tropical flower, didn't give the cheese oozing out of the pupusa con queso y loroco enough savor to compensate for the barely done masa, but meaty chicharron mixed with the cheese in the pupusa revuelta did. Even the perfect pupusa, though, gets bland quick without salsa and a heap of curtido, a garlicky, pickled slaw of shredded cabbage, onions, and carrots. Spread the pupusa thickly with the curtido, and its acid and spices cut through the cheese and fat. Kaliente's serviceable curtido lacked the perfume of oregano and the chile spike that animate the best slaws.

Kaliente's housemade flan -- impossible to find a Latin-American restaurant that doesn't serve it -- was cooked just a couple of minutes too long, until the bottom curdled. But the top remained smooth and creamy, coated in one of the best caramels I've tasted on flan. When you scooped up a spoonful of the custard from beneath the orange slice that garnished it, the citrus merged with the sauce into something sublime.

Where Kaliente sets itself apart from other Salvadoran restaurants is its service. The servers check in often, answer any and all questions, and notice when beer or water glasses are empty. And little details like real plates and tables that don't smell like old bleach do count for something.

With the exception of the excellent soups, tortillas, and some of the appetizers, you can find gutsier Salvadoran food down south on San Pablo Avenue. But Kaliente's welcoming room and service offer a good Salvadoran 101 lesson for folks who expect a little ambience with their meal.


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