Pupusas. There is a lot to love about these filled, griddled corn cakes from El Salvador. I suppose they can be compared to Mexican gorditas because of the corn masa, stuffing, and the griddle, but the comparison ends there. Handmade pupusas are filled with different things: beans, cheese, chicharrón (in this case, a paste of ground pork meat, not the same as crispy skin chicharrón in a gordita), and combinations of all three.
What is most exciting about pupusas is not just what they are filled with, but what is served with them. Curtido, a crunchy, vinegary, lightly fermented cabbage salad, and a mild tomato salsa are two traditional accompaniments to a fresh, hot-off-the-comal pupusa. Earthy corn masa filled with melting, soft, creamy cheese and salty chicharrón, topped with tangy, crunchy cabbage and a smooth salsa. It has it all—texture, flavor, and temperature contrasts, so much going on for such a small snack. Queens—particularly Jamaica, Queens—is home to a large Salvadorian population, so it made sense to start there in my search for the ultimate pupusa.
El OK Salvadoreño Restaurant
I decided to order the same two types of pupusa at each stop: revuelta (cheese and chicharrón) and queso con loroco. Loroco is the small bud of a plant that grows in El Salvador and throughout Central America, that has a fresh, herb-y, green flavor. At El OK, my first stop, the pupusas came out after a fifteen minute wait—a good thing, meaning that they are freshly prepared.
When I split open the loroco pupusa, white cheese, flecked with green, oozed out into a puddle on the plate. Not much loroco, lots of mild cheese. The revuelta had more flavor. The white cheese was strongly salted by the chicharrón, which tasted like pork concentrate. These pupusas had been griddled with oil, which gave them a crisp, greasy outer crust. The curtido had a nice hit of vinegar with a touch of heat from some red chili flakes, oregano, sharp white onions, and carrots for color, adding crunch and bite to the dish. The tomatoes were simply cooked and pureed into a thin red salsa, adding some acidity as well.
Price: $1.65 each pupusa
Highlights: Crisp exterior, melty cheese
145-16 Jamaica Avenue, Jamaica, Queens (map) (718) 526-7917
Viña del Mar
Viña del Mar is tiny, the dining area has six small tables, a beverage refrigerator, and a chest freezer for the kitchen. The pupusas here also took around fifteen minutes, and they were worth the wait.
Two disks, larger than the previous pupusas, with no crust, and no grease. The cheese filling was yellow-tinged and saltier, tangier, and stringier as well. The revueltas were good; cheese with the added salt and essence of pork, but the loroco was my favorite: whole buds of the plant were mixed in with the cheese, and lots of them, adding freshness and flavor to the strong cheese. The curtido was great. Similar in all aspects to the one at OK, but again, a little saltier, a little spicier, a little tangier. The red salsa was nearly identical at every place I tried. Tomatoes, barely seasoned, pureed into a thin sauce.
Price: $1.50 for pupusa revuelta, $1.75 pupusa de queso con loroco
Highlights: Stong, flavorful cheese, large pieces of loroco, great curtido
89-52 146th Street, Jamaica, Queens (map) (718) 206-9535
Rincon Salvadoreño was my first introduction to Salvadoran food years ago, so I'm a bit partial to the place. They have amazing tamales de elote, which are sweet and soft tamales with chunks of corn, and quite different from Mexican tamales. Served with thick sour cream and a quenelle of salty cheese, they are really, really good.
But I'm here to talk about pupusas. Rincon Salvadoreño is the fanciest of the restaurants on this list, and when I say fancy, I mean plastic banana trees, waterfalls, giraffe statue large-enough-to-sit-on-if-you-were-allowed-to fancy. It is impressive. This place is packed on the weekends. And the pupusas are good—standard, flavorful, high quality. They were so soft that they almost fell apart. The loroco pupusa was nice, lots of chopped loroco in another melty, oozy, stringy, flavorful cheese. The revuelta was not particularly memorable, but it was definitely tasty. Here, the curtido was another stand-out. Much like at Viña del Mar, a little spicy, a lot tangy, nice oregano flavor, with color from carrots and bite from onions. A fun experience.
Cost: $1.75 each
Highlights: Decor, consistent, fresh food.
92-15 149th Street Jamaica, Queens (map) (718) 526-3220
El Comal Pupuseria Restaurant has an impressive menu and steam table, which I ignored since I was so full of pupusas already and could not afford distractions. (Focus is key in round-up eating.) The pupusas were again freshly made to order, with a nice, strong cheese. The loroco was chopped up here, and there was not much of it. More than at OK, but less than the two previous pupusas. The revuelta was extra salty and pork-y. The curtido here was very crunchy, nicely salted, lots of carrots, but no oregano; overall, a great bite.
Cost: $1.75 each.
Highlights: Fresh tasting, high quality.
148-62 Hillside Avenue Jamaica, Queens (map) (718) 657-1929
This is the only non-Jamaica place on the round-up, and I went here to see how they compared in an area without much competition, Corona. I had to get an order of three pupusas, since they don't sell them individually. I got the revuelta, queso con loroco, and beans for a change. There were noticable differences in the pupusas here, interestingly. The cheese was not of the melting kind, more like a fresh cheese. Salty, chunky, and it stayed put, no oozing here. Very little chopped loroco, but the flavor came through.
The revuelta was full of pork, and not much cheese. The beans—soft, mashed, and seasoned—were heavy and filling. I'm glad that I didn't eat five of them. Here, the curtido was a beautiful pink color, and very simple. Cabbage, seasoned, with a few flecks of oregano. Nothing else. The salsa was served warm and tasted like a homemade version of Campbell's tomato soup. I wanted to drink it.
Cost: $5.65 for an order of three pupusas.
Highlights: Salty, fresh cheese, pink curtido, warm tomato salsa. 94-16 37th Avenue Corona, Queens (map) (718) 672-0853
My number one in the queso con loroco category is at Viña del Mar. My favorite pupusa revuelta is a tie between Viña (for size and cheese flavor) and El OK Salvadoreño (for pork flavor and a touch of crispness). The curtidos were all pretty great, particularly at Rincon Salvadoreño and Viña del Mar; the best tomato salsa, at Tierras Salvadoreñas.
I really did not have a bad pupusa anywhere. It's the combination of all the ingredients together that makes them so good, and all of the elements everywhere were fresh, bright, and hand-made. Patience is necessary when waiting for really good pupusas. It isn't fast food if they're done well, and to order.
Where do you find your favorite pupusas?