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Sep 23, 2008 02:41 PM

El Salvador

Ponce's Patio

The Tamal hits the table with a whoosh of masa scented air.I'm stretched out on the back patio at Ponce's soaking in the gorgeous first day of Fall 2008.

The little building on Chalmers has seen a handful of tenants in the last few years and I've eaten at each one.Rico's was good for cheap hamburger combos but he went under a while back and the building sat empty for a bit before the Salvadorans saw a business opportunity and capitalized on it.A sign outside promises Comida Centro Americana which is a sure bet to get me pulled off the road and into the parking lot.

Walking in there is a small counter you may eat at but it's tiny and offers little grace save affording a nice view of the goings on in the kitchen.

There is a small,tidy patio off to the side under the shade of Palm trees which offers a nice view of bustling Cesar Chavez.A pinata shop is off in the distance reminding me of how much fun it is to be blindfolded and gorged out on cheap candy.

I'm starting to relax a bit about restaurants charging for chips and salsa.They're wearing me down I reckon.Or perhaps I'm suffering from outrage fatigue in this busy political season.

And when the Chips and Salsa are this good I don't mind paying.The totopos are handcut from homemade corn tortillas,deep fried in good fat and dusted with salt.The Red Tomato Salsa is smoky and delicious,spiked with chunks and chunks of garlic but it only has a little chile heat.I haven't had tortilla chips this good since Azul Tequila quit making their's per order years ago.

I love restaurants that plaster their walls with lurid color photos of their menu offerings[only homey,Polaroid style xeroxes though]and Ponce's hits on all cylinders in this department.DEEP FRIED GROUND BEEF TACOS are very alluring.POLLOS ASADOS are fire engine red and pretty.Many,many more photos offer a visual tour through their menu.Someone has a cousin with a camera who works at Kinkos it appears.

Pupusas are kind of like Central American pancakes stuffed with White Cheese and perhaps some meat.They are one of the best things you will ever put in your mouth and if they're on a menu I cannnot resist .They are accompanied by Curtido which is cabbage sliced up like for slaw,tossed with thin slices of Jalapenos and dressed lightly with vinegar.Sometimes an herb is blended in,in this instance cilantro but more typically oregano.The molten white cheese plays nicely with the tart vinegar.

The Tamal comes and is three times the size of the typical Mexican version.It's served in a Plantain husk.The masa is cloudlike,light and porky,the meat is chicharron and the whole thing has been steamed til hot then lightly sauteed til crispy at the edges.It is wonderful.

The Pupusa and the Tamal come with two bottles of salsa;a non descript Green and a vivid Red that is brightly flavored but has little heat.

The hang is quite good.A grizzled gentleman is a table over guzzling soup from a big styrofoam cup,cars are rambling by on busy 1st street.The calm is briefly broken by some pain filled wailings off in the neighborhood somewhere but they are mercifully brief.

I can't wait to get back to Ponce's Patio and work my way through more of the menu:There are Baleadas,Chilaquiles,Tajadas,Sopa de Concha Jaiva,Chimichangas,Cactus Burritos,Hamburgers and Queso de Rajas to name a few of the more intriguing items.

My bill comes in at a little under $9 which is more than I like to spend for a Mexican-style lunch but to be fair it was a lot of food and I could've ordered one item less and still been really full.

Ponce's is open Monday through Saturday 6am-10pm and is located at 1701 East Cesar Chavez[actually on Chalmers behind this address.]512-236-1120

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  1. I feel as though it's my duty to make sure my out-of-town ACL'ers are well-fed, which usually means waking them up early, dragging them kicking & screaming with their crushing hangovers, and taking them out to Lockhart/Luling to repent for their sins.

    I caught up with them for the second half of first-day fest (and a particularly nice david byrne set) and since they were fairly well-behaved, I thought I'd have mercy on them this morning. Ponce's Patio is an easy-breezy shot from downtown, and is a great option to load up on grub before heading back into to the fest.

    This was my second visit since scrumptiouschef's initial report, and I'm already thinking of heading back there again tomorrow (if it wasn't for them being closed on Sunday).

    I am also a sucker for pupusas and, sad to say, hadn't had any in Austin prior to Ponce's (where else are they on offer?). Ponce's doesn't disappoint -- lovingly hand-made to order, major masa mouthfeel and flavor, and gotta love it when the cheese finds its way out to get all burnt and caramelized:

    Curtido is decent; more crisp and less pickled (and pink) than other versions, but works well with the masa-cakes (they don't need anything else in my book). I asked if they had loroco (kinda like zucchini flower), a pretty traditional pupusa filling, but they told me it was very difficult to find, though they will keep looking around. As will I.

    Tajadas (plantains) were nicely fried, totally greaseless, slightly crisp on the outside and soft on the ins. Lightly tossed with curtido and tomato salsa, and topped with cheese and a fried chicken leg. I could see myself getting this again with maybe some chorizo and a couple of easy eggs on top (instead of pollo frito) and making a helluva breakfast out of it.

    Much of the food is made by the ladies to-order and by-hand. Including the tortillas, as noted by scrumptious, although I did spot stacks of commercial tortillas and wondered what their purpose was. The menu is deep, mostly with the usual Tejano suspects, but there is a small Centro Americana section with the aforementioned baleadas, pupusas, platanos con crema, tamales de Hoja de platano (pork), and tajadas. The soups I saw going out looked and smelled great, with huge crab claws climbing their way out. I never did see the pollos asados being made, but for some reason I suspect they are strong.

    Thanks for the heads-up, scrumptious.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Nab


      You can get pupusas at El Zunzal on east 7th, in the same shopping center as HEB.

      1. re: whoalilponie

        Your fancy digital photog work does the heart of a luddite good.

        Now I'm starving and I just powered down 3 epic tacos from El Tacos Rico.

        There's got to be a way to bring forth the kind of stern hunger Ponce's requires for full satisfaction.

        Where can you buy a turkey feather in Austin?

        Whoalilponie is close on the location of El Zunzal but it's actually a free standing restaurant on Calle Street which is due West of the HEB complex on E.7th.

        A few words from the past on this spot:

        When I crave made to order guacamole I head over to El Zunzal,it's made only when ordered.

        Two styles are available:Estillo Mexicano,Salty w/white onion,lime juice and tomatoes or Estillo Salvadorena,Not as salty and filled with chopped Hard Boiled Egg.

        The downhill slide over the Winter has abated but the new menu also features new prices.To wit,$2.50 cent Carnita Tacos.

        AN OUTRAGE.

        To be sure but very good.My guess is they're slow roasted then finished per order in a very hot oven.Grab a Pupusa Queso and a quart of Regia,delicious crisp Salvadoran Lager.Good eatin....scrumptiouschef

        and a few more words,this time from from MPH

        So, I finally got a chance to check out the chow at El Zunzal, scrumptious, and I really enjoyed the experience. Both varieties of guacamole were indeed very good. The estilo mexicano consisted of mashed ripe avocado, tomato, salt, lots of chopped white onion, and maybe a touch of lime juice—but none of the ubiquitous cilantro common to most versions in Texas. No fresh chiles or salsa, either. I didn't miss the extra ingredients; I like guacamole prepared simply. The estilo salvadoreño was made up of mashed avocado, salt, and chopped hard-boiled egg (white and yolk). This seemed like an unusual combination to my dining companions, but I thought it was delicious.

        Their thin chips are just standard-issue industrial ones; in fact, they kept breaking as I used them to scoop up the guacamole, which I ended up just eating with a spoon. The table salsa (made with dried red chiles) was fairly hot in spiciness but just okay in flavor.

        As for tacos, I only sampled two fillings: the carnitas and the carne molida. The [pork] carnitas, served with cilantro and onion on a good-quality store-bought corn tortilla, was easily the better of the two. The small, fatty, bite-sized pieces of pork were very crispy. The carne molida was just sautéed ground beef with fairly standard "Tex-Mex" taco seasoning. Their version of this filling wasn't school-cafeteria-type bad, but it was no substitute for the transcendent version at the now-defunct El Rinconsito.

        The pupusa con queso was really wonderful, as you promised. I could have happily eaten about five more. Theirs looked like these:

        El Zunzal makes them right. A pupusa is not supposed to be just two corn tortillas with melted cheese in the middle, which is typical of a quesadilla. Traditionally, (ideally, fresh) corn masa is shaped into a ball, the filling of choice is pressed into the dough and completely enclosed within it, and the ball is flattened and then cooked on a comal [griddle] or skillet until lightly browned and blistered. A piping hot, fairly crisp, thin corn-masa exterior molded around deliciously melted white cheese. I wish I'd tried them with fillings of revueltos [often chicharrones, beans, and cheese] and chicharrones [pork rind or skin, like cracklings] as well. They also serve the traditional filling of loroco [an edible flower that grows in El Salvador and other Central American countries whose buds and flowers are popular in all types of regional cooking], which is on my list of things to try at El Zunzal very soon.

        (I'll also point any interested parties to this lyrical ode to the pleasures of pupusas on the L.A. board: ).

        Their curtido [Salvadoran condiment, like relish or sauerkraut, that is served with pupusas and meant to go on top of it; however, the majority of the non-Salvadorans in the restaurant tended to approach it as a side dish, like cole slaw] more or less adhered to the traditional recipe of pickled cabbage [purple cabbage, in this case], onions, carrots, and sometimes lemon juice. The cabbage was a bit limp, but I had no complaints.

        El Zunzal serves many El Salvadoran specialties, including salpicón, a cold salad of shredded beef; yuca frita con chicharrón [fried yuca (or cassava) roots with chicharrones], carne asada, plátanos fritos [fried bananas], and tamales de elote con crema [tamales with a filling of fresh corn that are topped with crema, which is like crème fraîche]. There are many, many inviting foods to explore on that menu! I'll definitely return—many times.

        Permalink | Report | Reply

        MPH Jun 22, 2008 12:58PM

        I would be really curious to find out what MPH thinks of Ponce's.It's hard to be so close to El Zunzal and not eat there but I'm hardbound to try more of Ponce's menu

        Also,who's been to Costa del Sol,another Salvadoran restaurant located on Cameron Road near US 183?

        1. re: scrumptiouschef

          i don't have the energy to elaborate at the moment on my last meal here, but try out El Salvador off Research and Payton Gin. It's across from Sea Dragon, on an island in the same shopping center.

          1. re: scrumptiouschef

            Just went to Costa del Sol for the first time this year. Still very good Salvadoran food in a Mexican place. Loroco pupusas were still nice and thick, filled with white cheese and the little green buds. Chicken tamales were very moist, stuffed with tender meat and chickpeas. They don't seem to have the wonderful masa flavor that good Mexican tamales do, but they're thick and juicy! IMO, the curtido was the best in town, crisp, fresh, nicely pickled cabbage, with a hint of oregano, and beautifully sweet onions. This time, it wasn't quite as thick and crisp, but I seem to remember it varied by batch anyway. Still compelling and probably still the best in town.

            By the way, the Salvadoran-style guacamole at El Zunzal you described sounds intriguing. I also remember a nice pastry there like bread pudding with raisins.

            1. re: budgethound

              Went back to Costa del Sol. The curtido was the same as last time, still quite good. The fish soup was flavorful, not overly salty or spicy. The fried plantains and yucca were less impressive.

      2. Do yourself a favor if you haven't already, and try the mole. I live around the corner from Ponce's, so I usually just grab and go. The last time we were sitting in, I had the mole and was really impressed. The sauce is deep, rich, smoky and not thin as some of the lesser versions are wont to be.

        Despite the non-traditional prep of the al pastor at Ponce's, I find their gordita and torta versions flooringly good. It has a real twang to it that makes it through the other ingredients but in a complementary way.

        I wholeheartedly concur about the pupusas and never make a trip without getting at least one, though I always make sure to get the queso y chicharrones version. The adobo-style salsa that comes with them is the perfect condiment for the dish.

        The Oaxacan tamals are a great stand-in if you can't get to Bastrop or can't wait for the weekend to get to the farmer's market for Tamaleo's version.

        We stop by quite a bit for breakfast tacos, as well, because they're on the way to work and I just can't in good conscience abide by Porfirio's.

        I'll say that I was shocked to discover that they don't use lard in their batters, but I'd have been none the wiser had I not asked.