By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
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Back home in San Salvador, Hector and Maritza Gil ran a pupuseria with their families. After they decided to leave El Salvador and its horrendous economy and move to Denver last fall, they also decided to continue doing what they know best. And do best, judging from the wonderful food that comes out of their modest storefront pupuseria, La Praviana, which they opened on South Broadway last fall.
Hector's sister, Maura Gil, moved here, too; she makes the pupusas with Maritza. The ever-smiling Maritza also waits on tables, unless her parents have come in to help, or Hector's parents have come in to help. And sometimes they're all so exhausted, they close early. "Family is very important," says Hector, who has two children with Maritza. "Some days I have to be with my family and this has to come second."
But they have to make a living, too, and so the Gils are at the restaurant (whose name refers to an Asturian popular song) from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, except on those days when they close up at 7. They make American breakfasts and lunches, Mexican lunches and dinners, and Salvadoran food all day long. But almost everyone comes here for a pupusa, the national snack food of El Salvador. In that country, fans grab pupusas mid-afternoon the way an American would run through the drive-through for an order of fries. Except that pupusas--pronounced poo-poo-sas--are much more filling than fries. They're made from big wads of masa harina dough that are filled with cheese, meats or vegetables, and sometimes all three; the dough is then rubbed with fat and grilled into something that resembles a pita pocket made from mashed potatoes. When the packages are opened up, they ooze molten cheese.
722 Santa Fe Drive
Denver, CO 80204
Region: Central Denver
2231 S. Broadway
Denver, CO 80210
Region: South Denver
At La Praviana, each pupusa, no matter what's inside, costs $1.60; two are enough to stuff your tummy pretty quickly. The Gil gals don't make them in the traditional manner, which is in a brick oven; that would be cost-prohibitive in this country. But they do hand-shape them and fry them golden-brown on the grill. Sometimes the package isn't quite sealed and some cheese pops out and gets grilled, too. Those are my favorite.
But there were also the revueltas, a combination of pork, refried beans and queso asadero--the best melter of the Mexican cheeses, with a rich, buttery flavor. And the queso con loroco, cheese and vegetables, which usually include tomatoes, green bell pepper and onion; the queso con frijoles, cheese and beans; the plain queso and the chicharron, filled with fried pork skins. The pupusas came with bowls of salsa fresca, sliced jalapenos and lettuce--all fresh, and all good for stuffing into the gooey pupusa centers--as well as a bowl of tomato sauce for dipping.
La Praviana does a commendable job with other Salvadoran fare, too. The carne desebrada ($5.50) brought a decent-sized portion of marinated, shredded meat that had been grilled with onions, tomatoes and green bell peppers; it came with good, corn-studded rice. The pan con pollo ($4.75)--a sandwich made from French bread lined with cucumbers, radishes and watercress, then filled with chicken that had been coated with a snappy tomato sauce--was quintessential Salvadoran fare.
Another well-known Salvadoran snack is platanos fritos con crema y frijoles ($3.75), fried plaintains coated with a sour-creamy concoction and served with refried beans. At La Praviana, this is a small but hearty dish that sticks to your ribs, your esophagus and anything else it hits on the way down. But save room for a few tamales ($1.60 each), too: These hefty bundles were packed with well-seasoned beef (you can also get chicken) and steamed into succulent submission.
On a return visit, I tackled the Mexican section of the menu. The smothered burritos ($4.50 each) looked like little duffel bags, each crammed with a choice of fiery chorizo, pork or beef, sided with beans and rice and, if not quite smothered, at least covered with a mild but pork-heavy green chile. And while the soft tacos ($1.09 each) were light on fillings, the tortas ($3.99 each) featured great buns and were packed with meats and cheeses.
I never did make it to the American dishes, but I didn't have to in order to recognize that La Praviana serves up good, simple food in its spartan space. You're not going to find pupusas anywhere else in the area--and you're not going to find a more friendly family trying to realize its dream.
In fact, only one thing is keeping my rave recommendation of La Praviana in check: I want everyone to know about the pupuseria, because it's such a gem and deserves to be a success. On the other hand, I also don't want everyone to rush there one night, overwhelm the place and then complain that the service can't keep up.
I'm torn. But I'm also hungry for another pupusa and will be heading back soon. Just stay out of my way, okay?
While there aren't any other pupuserias around town, there are plenty of family-run restaurants that serve Mexican fare. One of the most venerable is El Noa Noa, started by one of a group of cooking sisters twenty years ago. (The others went on to establish Mexican restaurants across town.) The flagship El Noa Noa, at 722 Santa Fe Drive, is not nearly as spartan as La Praviana--it has a big upstairs dining room as well as an outdoor patio that's the perfect place to sip your way through a summer afternoon--but the straightforward food has always been good, if cheesy, and the service always cheerful. Another mom and I stopped by the Santa Fe location--there's also a El Noa Noa at 1920 Federal Boulevard--after a long day at the Children's Museum.