You can be forgiven if you don't know much about El Salvador. It's the smallest Central American nation (you could fit it inside Washington state eight times over). It's easily overshadowed by the grande presence of Mexico, the colorful exuberance of Guatemala, the eco-tourism of Costa Rica, and Olympia's sister city relationship with Santo Tomas, Nicaragua.
Still, South Sound is home to several Salvadoran eateries, two in Thurston County: El Guanaco in downtown Olympia and El Pulgarcito II in Lacey (see The News Tribune’s dining blog for options farther north: blog.thenewstribune.com/tntdiner). Though both have extensive Mexican offerings, I ordered from the Salvadoran side of the menus during my visits.
While Salvadoran food is similar to Mexican and other Latin American cuisine, unique and delicious items justify a diversion to these unassuming eateries.
At the head of that list is the pupusa – a stuffed tortilla as ubiquitous to El Salvador as the taco is to Mexico. Add to that a tamale that bears only a passing resemblance to Mexican versions, plus unusual produce, for a dining experience that is both new and familiar.
A stone’s throw from Budd Inlet in downtown Olympia is El Guanaco, a Salvadoran and Mexican restaurant owned by Eddie and Leticia Galan. Guanaco is a slang term El Salvadorans use to refer to themselves. The Galans, not surprisingly, are Salvadorans and have operated their restaurant since 2002.
El Guanaco is split into two sections: the restaurant on one side, a bar and dance floor on the other. Salvadoran memorabilia decorates the walls lined with booths. On the weekends, salsa music and dancing fill the bar after 9 p.m.
The refried beans here are authentic, which means they are made with lard. Their rich flavor proves nothing beats beans with lard. But vegetarians and those wishing to stay out of the cardiac ward will be glad to know vegetarian black and pinto beans are available.
Another staple that will arrive with just about any Salvadoran dish is a cabbage slaw (curtido). A meal without it just wouldn’t be complete. Compared with others I’ve had (most notably at El Pulgarcito), El Guanaco’s was lacking in flavor and moisture.
“We sell a lot of pupusas,” said Eddie Galan. In Los Angeles, you can find a pupusa just about as often as a taco, Galan said. In the Northwest, they still are making inroads.
At first glance, a pupusa looks like a regular corn tortilla – or an empty taco. From a table level view, you can see it’s bulging with a soon-to-be-discovered savory filling. El Guanaco offers pork, cheese, beans, zucchini and variations thereof for a total of 10 handmade pupusas at $2 each.
We tried three. Queso con frijoles (cheese with beans) made use of those sinfully delicious larded-up beans. Another made with parts of the loroco plant (a native Central American vine) had a pungent bite from the loroco, tempered by jack cheese. Pupusas with puerco molido, finely ground pork rinds (chicharrn), were full of savory spice.
El Guanaco also offers a tamal de puerco (pork tamale) for $2.95. This is not your Mexican grandmother’s tamale. Wrapped in a banana leaf, the masa (from dried corn meal) was caramel-colored from spices and finely ground. The interior was filled with tender but firm pork, loroco and chunks of potato and carrot. As much as I love Mexican tamales, they seldom feel like an entrée. This one does. A corn version, made from courser-ground fresh masa, is $1.95.
One of the more unusual dishes I’ve had in long time was a pacaya – the flower of the date palm battered in egg and fried ($8.25). Served with rice, beans and tortillas, the firm, yellow flower was a truly alien-looking life form complete with dangling tentacles. The slightly bitter flavor plays on the tongue, but it’s offset by a somewhat sweet red sauce.
We also tried bistek encebollado – a thin slice of flavorful but chewy steak with grilled vegetables ($10.95); pollo guisado, big chunks of overcooked orange chicken, carrots and potatoes in a very mild broth ($9.50); and wonderfully caramelized plantains served with rice and beans ($6.50).
EL PULGARCITO II
El Pulgarcito numero uno is up north in Lakewood. Down here, No. 2 has the same owner and same menu. It’s a small, red vinyl-boothed eatery. The fare has a lot in common with El Guanaco, but there are differences.
First off is the curtido. Pulgarcito’s slaw is piquant with vinegar and flavored with oregano and bright chunks of red pepper. It’s a step up from El Guanaco.
The pupusas ($1.95) are wonderful discs of handmade corn, full of flavor (some of that from lard) with toasty sear spots. We tried three: The loroco had a nice sour note, the chicharrn version was like a moist carne seca, and a rice-and-bean combo was a Frisbee of flavor.
A beef rib soup (sopa de res, $10.99) featured yuca , cabbage, zucchini and housemade corn tortillas on the side. It arrived with a mound of cabbage strips poking up a bit too aggressively. Slices of zucchini, carrots, onions and two big chunks of yuca surrounded fork-sized chunks of nicely cooked beef, all in a mild orange broth. You can drop pieces of tortillas in the bowl or use them to hold the beef as I did: tacos born from soup.
A note about yuca: The brown-skinned root is also known as cassava. It’s not related to the spiky-leafed yucca plant. The skinned and cooked root looks and tastes much like a potato, only sweeter. It can be ordered as a side dish.
Pulgarcito doesn’t offer a pork tamal, but its corn tamal ($1.95) was sweet and not too cheesy. It also was a little dry – the kiss of death for tamales.
We also tried pollo guisado ($10.50). Perfectly cooked juicy chicken falling off the bone was smothered with vegetables. It was accompanied by rice and beans.
Mild flavors predominate at El Pulgarcito, but the tables are equipped with two squirt bottles of salsa – one hot and one mild. And, like El Guanaco, Pulgarcito offers all of the Mexican standbys. But resist. Try a pupusa and you might never go back to tacos again.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, firstname.lastname@example.org