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El Salvador
Out of a possible five

Salvadoran spot shines with flavor

It is always exciting when a new style of cuisine is brought into the area.

And it is even more exciting when the place serving that cuisine exceeds my expectations.

After visiting El Salvador Restaurant downtown, I am really excited.

Serving, of course, Salvadoran cuisine, this little restaurant is tucked into a new strip of stores anchored by a BP gas station at East Jefferson Boulevard and Clay Street. It is a cozy little space with a bright blue and white paint scheme to match the flag of El Salvador. It has a combination of new tile and carpeting with standard banquet-style tables and booths.

The first items I tried were ones everyone who dines here must try – the papusas. These treats are masa cornmeal filled with cheese, beans, loroco flowers, squash, pork or ground beef, or varying combinations. The papusas are made to order and formed by hand – I watched through a kitchen window as a woman patted them together – then grilled until brown.

They were kind of like soft little cornmeal pancakes stuffed with goodies. My favorites were the ground pork and cheese and loroco flower and cheese combinations. The Central American flowers had a somewhat earthy flavor, kind of like artichokes. All of the papusas were accompanied by a sweet, thin, ketchup-like salsa, but they were best when garnished with some of El Salvador’s freshly made salsa.

The salsa was provided gratis with freshly fried tortilla chips, and it had a wonderful freshness, as did the Salvadoran coleslaw that was also brought to the table. It was a little spicier than your normal slaw and served as a nice palate-awakener throughout my meals.

The same handmade cornmeal tortillas for the papusas flanked almost every meal I had at El Salvador. They were particularly handy to soak up the fantastic broth in the best item I ate, the Sopa de Patas – cow’s foot soup.

El Salvador offers six homemade soups on Saturdays and Sundays. Sopa de Patas is probably the most traditional Salvadoran soup, and it is a popular hangover cure. It was, indeed, made with a big hunk of foot, which was boney, fatty and gelatinous but gave the red, spicy broth in this soup a rich beef flavor that only comes from hours of simmering. I wanted to take a straw to this broth, it was so rich and tasty.

I ate around the nasty bits of the foot, but I did love digging out the wonderful marrow in the bones. The soup also had carrot, cabbage, big wedges of yucca – which I could have swore were potatoes – and a little cob of sweet corn. Garnished with fresh cilantro and a squeeze of lime, it was the perfect elixir on a cold winter’s night.

The owner was present during both visits and explained much of the food. It was a big help because my server struggled to communicate with us. I am very tolerant of this in small, family-operated ethnic restaurants, but it was really troublesome during one visit. When he was out front, however, he facilitated everything perfectly, and the service went off without a hitch.

He recommended the Pollo Azado (grilled chicken) and it was a fine choice. Two chicken quarters – attached leg and thigh – were deboned, lightly seasoned and rubbed with a green puree of cilantro and lime (there may have been more to it, but those were the pronounced flavors), then grilled skin-down. The skin was crisp, the chicken was tender, juicy and perfectly cooked, and that rub added a nice herb-citrus punch.

The Churasco Salvadoreno (grilled steak, beef rib and sausage) had possibly the single best component of any entrée. The short ribs in this hefty dish were sliced thinner than I have seen anywhere, but what separated them from the norm was how tender they were. They were lightly seasoned with some spices and grilled. They were nothing fancy, but they were exquisite.

The skirt steak was seasoned the same way and it, too, was good, and the standard smoked sausage link was split and grilled until nicely brown. But the ribs were the star and were worth going back for.

The Pollo en Crema (creamed chicken) was satisfying if not exciting. Chunks of tender chicken breast in a cheesy yellow sauce came with a side of rice and sautéed zucchini. The sauce was thinner than I expected but had a nice salty flavor, and it kind of grew on me. I ended up soaking it all up with rice and tortillas and had no complaints.

Speaking of cream, the owner came out one night with a hot beverage in a Styrofoam cup for me to try. Before I arrived, he had been drinking the Atol de Elote to get him through the slow night, he said. It is a sweet, hot corn concoction made with just milk, fresh corn and a lot of sugar. He usually has it on hand, he said, because his Salvadoran customers often ask for it, but he had not put it on the menu. It was light yellow, really sweet and had a lot of corn flavor. Not sure whether I would order it again, but I was glad I tried it. I am sure the sugar gave him plenty of energy to work.

I would order one of the Kolashanpan sodas again for sure. El Salvador offers only bottled and canned soft drinks in addition to horchata, fresh fruit drinks and smoothies. The Kolashanpan is an imported Salvadoran cream soda made with cane sugar, and it was terrific.

For dessert, the Tamales de Elote (green corn tamales) and fried plantains took top honors.

El Salvador has chicken or pork savory tamales, and both were tasty – super moist with more meat than masa. The green corn dessert tamales consisted of just sweet masa with a thick, sour cream sauce that sort of looked like yogurt on the side. Just a dab of the sauce on the super moist tamale was perfect.

The plantains were fried until dark brown on the outside and were soft and gooey throughout. They, too, came with the sour cream. El Salvador also offers a split fried plantain topped with a pudding-like custard and a dusting of cinnamon. It was tasty, but I preferred the regular ones.

Everything I had at El Salvador was tasty. There was not one item I would not have again.

But more importantly, there were many items I will have again, and several others I can’t wait to try.

Restaurant: El Salvador

Address: 515 E. Jefferson Blvd.

Phone: 420-0010

Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: Salvadoran

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes, has kids’ menu

Menu: Papusas ($1.50 to $1.75), tamales ($1.50), cow’s foot soup ($6), Steak, rib and sausage ($10.99), grilled chicken ($6.99), chicken with cream ($7.99), green corn tamales ($1.50), fried plantain ($1.50) fried plantain with cream ($3)

Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.