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Pupusas : SFBA Dish of the Month September 2014

Pupusas are the September 2014 dish of the month!

Dish of the Month is an activity where we collectively try as many versions of Pupusas as we can, reporting back with details and photos. We aim to try versions that are new to you.

Never heard of Pupusas before? Great! Now's your chance to try it for the first time and tell us what you think!

Pupusas are a Salvadoran thick, hand formed, tortilla-like product that's usually filled before grilling. The accompaniments are a watery tomato salsa and a slaw called curtido. Fillings vary and the dough can be (nixtamalized) corn or rice-based.

Report back on the Pupusas you eat, how you like them, and what they're like.

Previous reports:
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9719... (fresh masa vs. masa harina )

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  1. Oh, I'll start. I just took 2 cousins out for these items on Thursday.

    Cousins from upstate NY and Paris...it's increasingly a struggle when they visit every year to find something new or novel to intrigue them. This year it struck me: Pupusas! And in fact neither of them knew what these are. It also served as an excuse to get them out of the Mission and Bernal.

    Sadly, Los Planes De Renderos appears to be shuttered.

    So we ended up at Los Guanacos (4479 Mission in the Excelsior).

    The Pupusas: Good, not great. Not greasy, which was important for the French cousin who has a deep aversion to fried things. Masa was good, but it didn't seem like fresh-made nixtamal. The loroco and cheese had plenty of loroco. Beans were quite flavorful, likewise the chicharon.

    The curtido was a weak point. It was a bit limp. But it was bright and very vinegar-y; I think it had just sat too long -- we were there shortly before closing.

    In comparison with El Zocalo, which is where I have had 90% of my pupusas in the past 10 years, Guanacos comes out ahead. I guess I prefer slightly stale curtido over too-fresh (i.e., freshly cut cabbage with just a hint of vinegar, which seems to be the norm at Zocalo). Guanacos' pupusas were definitely smaller than Zocalo's, and less leaden. But I wouldn't call them "pillowy," as San Jalisco's were described in one of the linked earlier threads.

    5 Replies
    1. re: waldito

      Glad to hear you found a potential replacement for El Zocalo-- they're selling the business to make room for an expansion of Emmy's Spaghetti Shack : http://bernalwood.wordpress.com/2014/...

      Oh no! I hope Los Planes were just on vacation or something (Los Planes isn't normally closed on Thursdays). They were open the previous weekend: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/987000

      1. re: waldito

        " It also served as an excuse to get them out of the Mission and Bernal."

        Do you mean out of "The Mission" into the REAL Mission?

        1. re: waldito

          Okay <<whew!>>, I can confirm as of 9/2/14 Los Planes De Renderos is still in business. Pupusas are still the best. 'Nuff said.

          1. re: waldito

            We just went back to El Zocalo when we heard about their retirement. Good to very-good pupusas, and a surprisingly good chicken enchilada with green sauce. The green sauce had some unusual taste notes. All spice? Nutmeg?

            But I agree on their curtido being too fresh -- I like it very vinegary.

            Waldito, do you go to Balompie #3 or Santaneca? How do you think they stack up?

            1. re: waldito

              Well, I'm glad they're not really closed. Sorry to exaggerate rumors of their demise. Maybe they were doing a deep cleaning, it had that 'closed for more than just tonight' look. Now I'll have to trek back out to the 'real' mission to take another shot.

              I'm not really a pupusa guy normally, so haven't been to Balompie or Santaneca. I keep meaning to go to Santaneca...I suppose I will when Zocalo closes. Most of my pupusa eating is when someone else at the table orders them. And usually that is at Zocalo, and usually I'm glad I can eat only half of one, as they simply feel too dense after a few bites.

              If the Excelsior is the 'real' Mission, does than mean it too will start to feel like the Marina in a decade? I hope not. Having said that, I had a table full of enjoyable items at Lolo in their new space the other day. I'm confident that I was the only one in the building with any sense of the basement's history as a punk club.

            2. Don Julio's Latin Grill U pupusas just opened in Rohnert Park. I thought the pupusas were excellent. Great slaw too.

              1. I have been eating pupusas sporadically for about ten years. They are a popular find at Manhattan street fairs. I actually ate one about three days ago at a Montreal street fair. For some reason, I have never seen one in an actual restaurant.

                I love anything made from corn and I love cheese in (almost) every form so this is an easy choice for me.

                The sauce is too watery for me and the slaw doesn't really add anything. So I just like to eat the pupusa itself. Maybe I will try one of the places in LA before I leave. I have probably never had a really great pupusa. Let me check and see what is close to my hotel.

                1 Reply
                1. re: t19103

                  For some reason, the sauce used with pupusas is usually terrible -- sort of like ketchup watered down with tomato soup. The curtido (slaw) is also highly variable. When it's good, it adds some texture and zing to the pupusa. When it's not (often) it's -- as you noted -- pointless. So don't automatically dismiss the option to eat the pupusa with the curtido.

                2. for those confined to options east of the bay bridge, Lupita's has a delicate touch with their pupusas. 3340 Foothill Blvd. (oaktown, betw. Coolidge and 34th ave.).

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: moto

                    In Oakland, Casa Jimenez had a surprisingly tasty, grease-free loroco pupusa. Curtido is pretty average.

                    Further south in Hayward, Pupuseria las Cabanas has nice pupusas (corn & rice) and a curtido with a little kick.

                    There's a Planes de Renderos in Hayward too. I haven't tried it yet. Is it related to the SF one?

                    There's a place in Richmond I like whose name escapes me ATM.

                    1. re: drewskiSF

                      Taqueria La Bamba, perhaps? The last time I ate there, admittedly over a year ago, I had a cheese and loroco paupsa and the chicharron one.

                      12345 San Pablo Ave, Richmond, CA 94805
                      (510) 235-2288

                    2. re: moto

                      For what it's worth, I ordered Lupito's from Caviar delivery service a few months back and wasn't that impressed. Couldn't distnguish between the fillings as everything tasted the same to me and lacking flavor. I realize this is delivery so not a fair way to judge but I wouldn't do it again, in person or otherwise.

                      The pupusa's at Olivo's in the T-loin are pretty good. The only others I've had in the Bay Area were at the Latin American/Salvadoran place corner 16th and Valencia (crack corner) where the woman often cooks them fresh outside on a griddle. They're nothing special imo. I'm actually not certain that I'm a fan of pupusas because so far my experiences have all been pretty bland. I find them doughy and lacking in complexity (I realize it's simple rustic food). The vinegared cabbage is usually pretty bad; hard to describe but I often find it tastes like it's been tossed in an old gym sock. The pickled carrots and jalapenos are the only savior for me. The sauce is indeed usually thick and ketchupy. Perhaps I've never had a really great pupusa yet but until that day, I'm not overly fond of them.

                      1. re: OliverB

                        i'm surprised everything tasted the same. what types did you get?

                        Lupita's is my favorite in Oakland. my "go-to" there is the loroco.

                        btw, Lupita's (or their truck in the parking lot) is where Bourdain ate at on the SF "No Reservations"

                        1. re: drewskiSF

                          I don't remember but I ordered about 7 or 8 different kinds; both meat, chicken, and vegetarian for my wife. Maybe I should give it a shot in person? I'm just not that into pupusas, I don't think.

                          1. re: OliverB

                            understandable, in the larger context of our diverse food experiences and preferences. part of the process in the 'dish of the month' collaboration is learning how or why some things aren't suited for everyone. if someone only experienced the mainstream u.s. interpretation of pizza topped with tomato sauce, they could taste all the same too, whatever else went on top of them.

                            1. re: OliverB

                              Yeah, meat filling tends to be nondescript for me too, so I prefer to get vegetarian pupusas.

                              Take-out isn't very forgiving to pupusas --- they lose flavor as they steam in aluminum foil, and can get either mushy or rubbery.

                      2. The pupusas Pacita's in San Leandro are big, tasty and made to order with a bunch of options for fillings. They also make a huge pan con pollo and, on certain days, pastelitos de pollo (fried masa filled with chicken) served with same finely chopped curtido and mild red salsa as the pupusas. I have not yet tried any of the sweet bakery items but they look fabulous.
                        Las Pacita's Salvadorean Bakery
                        14750 E. 14th St.
                        San Leandro CA 94578

                        1. tried the squash/bean pupusa from Yam Leaf Bistro in Mountain View. organic ingredients, very strong and tasty flavor, and well made. Had the veg chorizo pupusa as well, which was good, though I liked the squash/bean version better.

                          this place used to be a Salvadoran restaurant. the ownership changed last year. the new restaurant maintains the Salvadoran dishes though they do only organic vegetarian dishes now as they are buddhist. They also have chinese specials during the weekend. Price is higher, though the ingredients are better and made from scratch.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: ckshen

                            Thanks ckshen!

                            Mountain View area has had an unusual concentration of Salvadoran restaurants, I recall six offhand, not counting Rincon Sabroso which hyperbowler reported. They tend to make lively fresh curtidos (flavored with oregano etc.). One Salvadoran restaurateur mentioned that El Salvador had many immigrants from Germany -- possibly the origin wherefrom curtido itself evolved -- and that it's popularly used there also as a garnish for grilled sausages.

                            I was already rather over-pupusad, and may beg off on revisiting still more pupusas specifically for DOTM.

                            The former Salvadoran restaurant mentioned by ckshen was El Calderon for 44 years (even Herb Caen from the SF Chron lauded it, he'd take the Southern Pacific train down from SF). Last year, longtime owner Angelita "Lita" Lopez sold El Calderon. The new owner re-christened it Yam Leaf Bistro, updated the interior, and took it vegetarian, but kept the staff and much of the Salvadoran menu (and Lita Lopez, who lives nearby, as consultant); I share in the strong consensus that it's a worthy successor to El Calderon.

                            Of the lower-peninsula Taqueria La Bamba group (which is also Salvadoran), the one on Rengstorff (converted high-ceilinged fast-foodery of some kind) has also made creditable papusas in a larger size than El Calderon's. And, next to Napoletana Pizzeria on El Camino is an explicit papuseria I haven't been to in some time (owing to the distracting presence of Napoletana).

                          2. El Rinconsito Catracho in San Mateo's "pupusa montada" is a wide pupusa topped with several fried eggs and a sauce closer to ranchero sauce than the normal pupusa salsa.

                            The fully cooked egg separated the sauce from the pupusa, but the top of the pupusa was softened and wet. Cheese protected the browned bottom from losing any flavor.

                            I got it filled with loroco and cheese, and they cut the loroco into bigger chunks than I've had before. I liked the knobby texture. Loroco is often compared to asparagus, but in the midst of a melty cheese and tomato sauce, this bitter plant brought me to eggplant territory with a hint of tea.

                            The side of curtido was great- spicy, crisp, and not overpowered with oregano.

                            1. Rincon Sabroso in Mountain View has an open kitchen so you can see them hand form and grill pupusas while you wait for your order. I got the calabaza y queso (zucchini and cheese) pupusa.

                              I watched them reform the dough after zucchini pierced the outside, but this didn't seem to affect the integrity of the pupusa's outside, which got lightly browned and held together well. The high water content of the zucchini caused the insides to not fully cook and they reminded me of pasty grits.

                              The curtido had a lot of heat from green chili, jalapenos IIRC, and was not overpowered with oregano.

                              Their tacos use small tortillas from a bag, but I also watched them press fresh tortillas for some other dish. The dough is made from Maseca flour.

                              1. Had pupusas at the Kensington Farmer's Market (a sweet market for those looking for new ones to try) Sunday. Thumbs up. They were already out of meat (a sell-out makes me think I should go back to see what the fuss is about....). But I thought the cheese were well done. Not greasy, a lovely balance of flavors with a good curtido and salsa (they give you two tubs--I didn't love the red, which seemed a bit harsh [burned chiles?]--but the tomatillo salsa was perfect, a lovely topping for the creamy filled pouch and fresh, vinegar-y slaw.)

                                1. I first had pupusas some 30 years ago when I lived on Shotwell off 24th. We used to get them at El Trebol, which is long gone (24th just west of Mission), and El Santaneca, which is still there. I was just out of college, having a great time living in the Mission, and to this day any given pupusa has the potential to be a madeleine-in-lime-blossom-tea type deal for me.

                                  For the last 17 years I've been living in a basically pupusa-free neighborhood (though I hear the liquor store at 11th & Geary serves them--will have to check that out), so I go long stretches between pupusas. Years, maybe a decade even. But I have retained my fondness for them, and the DOTM challenge was a good excuse to eat my fill of them (and, quite possibly, then some).

                                  I figured I'd start my DOTM quest where it all began, at La Santaneca. But when I walked by (at 10:45 am!) all the tables were full. So Plan B was...well, actually Plan B is by definition 'create a diversion and run like hell'. So I skipped to Plan C, which was to go into any random place that served pupusas and see how they were.

                                  That random place was Las Palmeras (Mission between 23rd & 24th). Two pupusas revueltas (a la carte, no rice & beans) for $4.75 w/tax--pretty reasonable.

                                  First visual impression was that they seemed a little pale; I remembered them as generally having more searing on them. First bite struck me as a little bland and doughy, but I think that was partly an unlucky bite (mostly cheeseless), because it got better after that. There was some nice griddled spilled cheese--always my favorite part. The curtido was a little fresher (crunchier) than I like, but the flavor was just right--the vinegar/spice combo took me back 30 years. The salsa served with them had a nice kick.

                                  On the whole, they were decent, not outstanding (again, I would have liked a little more searing). Certainly not bad for having been selected pretty much at random.

                                  ETA: Apart from the pupusas, my favorite thing about this place was the typo in the right-to-refuse-service sign.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: TVHilton

                                    Good lord, I'd completely forgotten about that liquor store on Geary. And I'm the one who posted about it! I would never eat a reheated pupusa, but do try the tamales (if they're made by the same person as in the past).

                                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                                      Good to know! I was thinking about stopping there on the way home from work sometime this week. I'll definitely pick up some tamales along with a couple of pupusas.

                                  2. I still like El Tazumal on 4th St. in San Rafael. I posted about it a while back:

                                    Prices and service very good. Queso y loroco is my go-to here. Parking is easy, and they're close to Bordenave's Bakery if you're looking for day-old bread for French toast.

                                    1. Bocanova has a Pork Pupusa on their brunch menu for $13.

                                      Menu description has fried egg, black beans, cole slaw, pickled onion, and tomatillo. I thought some things would come on the side, but everything came in a big stack, and unadvertised were some crumbled queso fresco and chopped cilantro.

                                      Also, this was a cheese pupusa with the above toppings plus roasted pork under the over-easy egg, instead of having some chicharrón (Salvadoran shredded pork) inside the pupusa with the cheese.

                                      There was a lot going on and the pupusa got lost except for a couple of bites of the edges that escaped the toppings, which I liked because some cheese had oozed out and crisped up on the griddle.

                                      The curtido had visible red pepper flakes and oregano, but neither flavor was very prominent.

                                      It satisfied for breakfast, but is not something I would order again.