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Pupusas

BARBARA HANSEN, TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maria Ofelia Hernandez carefully pats the ball of masa into a flat cake, leaving the imprint of her fingers on the surface, like an artist’s signature. Then she plops the cake onto a hot grill where it slowly cooks until it’s lightly browned and puffed up.

Thus another pupusa comes into being.

Little known in Los Angeles 10 years ago, this stuffed corn cake from El Salvador is now a robust rival to Mexico’s taco.

Since the early ‘80s when civil-war refugees from El Salvador began flooding into Los Angeles, pupuserias have sprung up here by the score. On a typical Saturday, Anayas Salvadoran restaurant on Vermont Avenue, where Hernandez works, sells 500 pupusas.

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Traditional pupusa fillings are beans, pale cheese and chicharron (seasoned pork meat)--served either separately or in combination. Reworked with a goat cheese and sun-dried tomato filling, the pupusa has made its way onto the menu of one Westside restaurant. Scaled down to half-dollar size, it is circulating at upscale cocktail parties. And it’s an occasional special at a classy Pasadena eatery.

So good are local pupusas that customers are taking them all over the place--even home to El Salvador. Yvette Solombrino, proprietor of the El Salvador Cafe, the oldest Salvadoran restaurant in Los Angeles, packs them to go all the time. The quality of meat and cheese is superior here, she explains, and the pupusas are bigger.

How do you eat a pupusa ? The polite way is with knife and fork. The rustic way is to tear off a piece, add a bit of curtido (a coleslaw-like “salad” of shredded cabbage and carrot marinated in vinegar) and eat it with your fingers. A survey of pupusa eaters in local restaurants revealed additional techniques. Some top their whole pupusa with curtido and sprinkle on tomato salsa, forming a sort of tostada. A woman in a tiny cafe just west of downtown tore off a pupusa wedge, stirred some salsa into a spoonful of curtido and stuffed the mixture inside the pupusa.

Pupusas have one thing in common with Mexico’s corn tortillas: they employ the same masa. Indeed, the typical sound of a pupuseria is the same pat-pat-patting of masa that you hear in a Mexican tortilleria . The difference is in the fillings. To a Mexican-American, chicharron means crisp fried pig skins. To a Salvadoran, it means pork meat that has been cooked, then ground with tomatoes, green pepper, onion and perhaps yuca (cassava root) or potato.

A plain cheese pupusa is much like a quesadilla with an extra-thick tortilla. But the classic style is to combine the cheese with chopped loroco , a green flower from Central America that looks a little like a loose asparagus tip. So inseparable are these two ingredients that Salvadoran grocer Jose Zedan says, “Without loroco , there’s no pupusa .”

A good restaurant will provide plenty of loroco. Others skimp, lacing the cheese with a few tiny bits, or even substituting another vegetable, such as green pepper.

Pinto beans, finely mashed, show up in pupusas too, sometimes alone but more often combined with other fillings. These mixed pupusas are called revueltas .

Expect to wait when you order pupusas : Most restaurants prepare them to order, and the grilling takes 10 minutes. “You can’t rush it,” says Sonia Anaya of Anayas restaurant. When the pupusa puffs up, it is done.

Making pupusas also requires skill. “Not just anyone can do it,” Anaya says. “Some make ( pupusas ) too fat. Others are too thin, and the filling comes out.” And if you let a pupusa stand too long it will harden. A reheated pupusa is never as good as a freshly made one.

A few places, including Anayas and its sister restaurant, El Izalqueno on Pico Boulevard, offer rice-flour pupusas . These are less common because the rice dough is more difficult to handle.

Sonia Anaya says that pupusas originated as a farmer’s lunch, a handy way to transport food to the fields.

It was inevitable that pupusas would enter the mainstream, undergoing the same sort of adaptations as Mexican and Oriental dishes. Hugo Molina, executive chef of the Parkway Grill in Pasadena, has been producing pupusas as a special for the past year. Molina respects tradition by serving authentic curtido but applies imagination to the filling. Chicken with poblano chiles and sweet black beans with pancetta are two of his ideas. “We try to make them different every time,” he says.

Molina even grinds his own corn for the masa , when time allows. Cut into wedges, topped with a dash of curtido and arranged on a plate with chile sauce, the pupusas have been a hit. “People love them,” he says. “Most of the time, I don’t think I make enough.”

At the Palm Court in West Los Angeles, pupusas stuffed with goat and ricotta cheeses, fresh thyme and sun-dried tomatoes are on the breakfast menu. When the restaurant starts dinner service Sept. 13, pupusas will be on hand, either accompanied by roasted peppers as an appetizer or paired with chipotle -marinated chicken, tomato salsa and cucumber creme fraiche as a main course.

Robert Willson, executive chef of Parties Plus, the catering firm that operates the Palm Court, uses miniature pupusas with assorted toppings as cocktail party canapes. Typical toppings: grilled quail breast; duck confit with ancho chile; yellow tomato salsa with creme fraiche or a salsa of black beans and jicama seasoned with Thai fish sauce.

Willson got onto pupusas six years ago, when employees of the catering firm--many of them Salvadoran--staged a potluck dinner. “I think they’ll move right into our cuisine in L.A.,” he says. “As soon as someone gets smart and opens a pupuseria on the Westside.”

The following recipes contrast traditional pupusas , as prepared at Anayas Salvadoran restaurant, with the contemporary California version introduced at the Palm Court. Sonia Anaya and restaurant cook Maria Ofelia Hernandez also supplied recipes for curtido and Salvadoran-style tomato salsa. Anaya is from San Salvador; Hernandez comes from San Miguel; Hugo Molina is from Guatemala. And The Palm Court’s Rich Kitos hails from Lawrence, Kan., which makes him the most unorthodox pupusa chef in town.


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