Masa Mia!

Posted July 30, 2009 in Eats

Question: What Latin American staple dish looks like the bastard child between a tortilla, a sope and an empanada? Give up? Well if you didn’t know that the correct response was a pupusa, then you, my friend, have not realized that purveyors of this Salvadorean comfort food have slowly but surely been popping up across the IE’s culinary topography. True, pupuserias are not as dime-a-dozen as your mom-and-pop authentic Mexican eateries, but these centers of Central American grub have been making their home in Riverside, Rubidoux, Moreno Valley, Rialto and other 951/909 area codes over the past few years. In the case of Pupuseria La Sierra Restaurant in Riverside, business was doing so good that they were able to move from a small restaurant space on Wells and Tyler avenues to a larger site along a La Sierra Avenue strip mall.


The new accommodations—slick and shiny yellow-and-blue tiles decorate the dining area along with murals of temple-pyramids and indigenous peoples from Mesoamerica—do wonders for a place that was already delivering some of the best Salvadorean eats this side of the Lempa River. Now those who are tethered to the fast-food-paced mentality of casual dining—a rude awakening awaits you here at La Sierra (or any other pupuseria for that matter). You see, all the dishes are cooked to order—preparing pupusas ahead of time? Fuggedaboudit!—and patrons are warned to allow extra time, anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, to get their orders filled. Whether you’re dining in or doing take out, the two words to keep in mind are “call ahead.”


A pupusa (which is translated for you as “flying saucer” on the menu?!) is essentially a thick tortilla that has been stuffed with beans, cheese, meat or a combination of these, which is knows as a revuelta (roughly translates to “mixed together”). For animal huggers, this place also provides a vegetarian pupusa de calabasa which is filled with zucchini and cheese. But for us meat lovers—bring on the chicharron (fried pork rinds) and get out of the way!


For this sampling, our culinary net landed pupusas filled with cheese, beans as well as the revuelta style. When in Rome . . . er, we mean, El Salvador. Regardless of the filling (and this writer must confess to a weakness for the beans and cheese), it’s the tortilla-like flatbread that is the quintessence for enjoying your pupusas. Warm, pliant, just chewy enough, just crisp enough, this eatery’s got its masa recipe on point. Hearty, full of carbs and golden brown—aren’t these the hallmarks for comfort foods worldwide?—I challenge anyone who says eating less than three pupusas will satiate their appetite for this quesillo-laden grub.


Another thing you must know about pupusa-eating, is that it is invariably accompanied by a condiment that this reviewer, at first, was not altogether fond of. I’m talking about El Salvador’s answer to cole slaw or sauerkraut: curtido. Essentially, pickled shredded cabbage with a few slivers of carrots and peppers throw in, this is the national side for pupusas and its sharp (but not bitter), crispness contrasts well with the meatiness and/or cheesiness of the pupusa filling. Naturally, a chili sauce (this is, after all, Latin American food, remember) makes its presence known and the variety here is absolutely top-notch. Looking like it was made on the premises and harboring a smoky, fiery profile, the chili begs to be drizzled all over your meal.


The fried bananas (platanos fritos) here make a mighty fine ending to a belly-busting repast. Fried to the point where the bananas are suffused with a caramelized coating, this dessert is good enough to soften the heart of any banana republic dictator.


And while you’ve surely had horchata, you’ve got to try the Salvadorean style drink here. It’s got a nuttier, earthier taste to it that smacks of atole (a corn starch-y hot chocolate-like hot drink).


So next time you’ve got a hankerin‘ for a south of the border dish, think outside, er, inside the tortilla. 


Pupuseria La Sierra Restaurant at 4505 La Sierra Ave., Riverside, (951) 352-9877. 10AM-9PM every day. MC, V.


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