Salvadoran food is one of many distinct cuisines of Central America. As immigration to the US from El Salvador has grown in the last three decades, Salvadoran fare has blossomed. "Salvadorans are the country's sixth largest immigrant group after Mexican, Filipino, Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese foreign born," according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Across the country, Salvadoran expatriates have opened restaurants focusing on the cookery of their homeland, or combining Salvadoran menu items with other Latin fare, particularly Mexican. Salvadoran cuisine originally relied on the "three sisters" of corn, beans and squash along with tomatoes and chilies, then incorporated European ingredients like cheese, onion and beef as the region was colonized by the Spanish. This once-obscure cuisine has earned devoted fans for its hearty, honest flavors.
Salvadoran fare shares ingredients and techniques with its giant neighbor to the north, Mexico, but expressed in Salvadoran fashion. As such, it's an excellent complement to an existing Mexican menu and a comfortable fit with other Latin culinary traditions. Relying on similar or identical ingredients, Salvadoran dishes can bring in a welcome variety and a broader appeal, or they can stand alone on a purely Salvadoran menu.
The quintessential Salvadoran dish is the pupusa, El Salvador's answer to the taco. A smooth dough of nixtamalized corn is wrapped around a filling and rolled into a flat, thick patty, then pan grilled. Classic fillings include cheese (usually quesillo, a soft Salvadoran cheese similar to mozzarella); chicharron ( a seasoned ground mixture of roasted pork); or beans. The popular pupusa revuelta is filled with all three. Another classic combines cheese with loroco, a mildly flavored green flower. Pupusas are served with curtido, a lightly fermented slaw of cabbage, carrots, onion and oregano which offers a bright, crunchy balance.
What are other popular dishes? Chimol, a pico de gallo-like salsa with diced radish; casamiento, a side dish combining rice and beans; yuca con chicarron, fried yuca strewn with nuggets of fried pork or pork belly; platanos con crema, fried sweet plantains served with crema (a common breakfast); tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Salvadoran horchata is sweet and delicious like Mexican horchata, but based on ground morro seeds instead of ground rice.
Salvadoran restaurants range from strictly traditional to fusion, and from strictly Salvadoran to menus drawing from multiple cultures. At El Salvador Restaurant in Irving Texas, owner Hilcia Garcia opened the restaurant in 2000 focusing on Salvadoran and Mexican food, then expanded into Peruvian specialties. "One day a customer said he was a chef in Peru and I asked him if he wanted to give it a try. People loved his food and now we have a lot of clientele from Peru." While their Sopa de Mariscos con Langosta (Seafood Soup with Lobster) is their most popular Salvadoran dish, their Peruvian options have legions of devotees, especially ceviche, rotisserie chicken and Lomo Saltado, a stir-fry of marinated beef, onions, tomatoes and French fries influenced by the Chinese population in Peru.
Hilcia Garcia is loyal to traditional recipes. "Our authenticity makes the place special. We try to keep the same recipes and keep the same employees." One of her heritage Salvadoran recipes unfamiliar to many Americans is Atol de Elote, a hot beverage made of fresh corn, sugar and milk. "Here in America it's hard to find the white corn so people use the yellow corn. It doesn't taste quite the same but it's similar. We sell a lot of it in the winter time," says Garcia.
When José "Nelson" Hernandez opened La Libertad on Broadway in Manhattan in 2012, he decided to offer Italian cuisine along with Salvadoran. "We tried to make a combined menu so we could get some other customers because in our area there are not many Salvadoran people. We thought if we had more choices like Italian and Salvadoran we could make a better business." Their most popular dish is El Volcan, a grilled hanger steak served with casamiento and chimol. Other Salvadoran options include Tamal de Gallina, stuffed with chicken, potato and green olives; Mariscada, a seafood stew with shellfish, yuca and coconut milk; and pupusas. They broaden their audience with choices like Fettuccine Alfredo; Shaved Kale Salad; Calamari Frito with lemon mayonnaise; and burgers.
Other operators depart from the classics, bringing an inventive touch to their Salvadoran-focused menus. A Salvadoran food cart in Portland Oregon named Anthology offers pupusa fillings including grasshoppers, portabella mushrooms, smoked artichoke and chipilin leaf.
At Jaraguá in East Hollywood, California, owners Ana and Milton Fuentes partnered with the neighboring bar to supply innovative craft cocktails. While the menu is largely traditional, their Salvadoran Poutine is perfect bar food: crispy fried yuca is bathed in Carne Guisada (beef stewed with carrots and onions) and Salvadoran queso fresco.
For some restaurants, sticking with tradition is no guarantee of success. At Hernandez' La Libertad, they used to offer Empanadas de Platano (a dessert empanada with plantains and sweet custard) and chan (a drink with a soaked chia-like seeds) "but most of our customers are not Salvadoran. They didn't sell, so we took them off the menu."
The majority of ingredients for Salvadoran food are easily procured, but some are hard to source. Hilcia Garcia relies on cheese from El Salvador to make her pupusas authentic, and Hernandez notes that fresh loroco "is hard to find. You have to make a relationship with a company that supplies it."
While many customers aren't familiar with Salvadoran cuisine at first glance, they are easily converted to fans. It relies on many ingredients beloved to Mexican food lovers: corn and corn meal, slow cooked meats, gooey cheese, zippy salsas. Many recipes have a simple universal appeal: slow cooked meats, comforting soups, and loaded sandwiches like the Panes con Pavo, packed with braised turkey. Whether strategically offered alongside familiar Mexican dishes or creatively altered to entice adventurous eaters, Salvadoran cuisine has enduring appeal.