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Give Them a Hand

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.

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.

We were two broads looking for margaritas for ourselves and quesadillas for the kids. We found those and much more, including some killer fajitas ($8.95) made with tender, charred-edged beef that had been grilled with onions and green bell peppers. And when we asked for extra onions, we actually got them.

El Noa Noa's specialty has always been the sopaipillas, sweet and savory, and they're great both ways. In the savory version, the El Noa Noa Special ($4.75), the puffy triangle looked as though it were going to explode from all the pork, refried beans and cheese stuffed inside; the whole wonderful mess was topped with more cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream, which we promptly smothered with a side of fiery green chile ($1.50). That same good green smothered the chiles rellenos ($6.75), two soft packages filled with tons of cheese.

The fajitas were so stunning we decided to get an order of carne a la tampiquena ($8.75) to go. The menu promised the sliced, chile-rubbed steak would be "grilled to perfection," and it was; it was sided by a cheese enchilada, a shredded-chicken-stuffed flauta and rice and beans that survived the journey home just fine. We also took away the special of the day, the pozole ($5.99), a modest but tasty take on the soup, with a thin tomato base, plenty of pork and even more hominy.

Now, about those margaritas ($4.50 each) and quesadillas ($2.50). The drinks were large and no-nonsense, and not one complaint was heard from the peanut gallery about the cheese-filled tortillas sided with refried beans and rice. (Maybe the kids were too busy watching the peach-shirt-wearing gentleman crooning in the bar area next door.) Nor did the staff frown once at the mess made beneath the high chair of my friend's ten-month-old. And they didn't even wince at the sight of honey smeared from one end of the table to the other. The honey was meant to adorn the most delectable dessert sopaipillas ever ($3.75 for two), but what can you do when four-year-olds get ahold of the honey bear? We tipped well.

So support the old and the new: Take your family to El Noa Noa this week, then stop by to visit the Gil family at La Praviana next week. Just remember that they're making those pupusas by hand--and they've already got their hands full.

La Praviana, 2231 South Broadway, 303-722-0129. Hours: 6 a.m.- 8 p.m. daily.

El Noa Noa Restaurant, 722 Santa Fe Drive, 303-623-6071. Hours: 9 a.m.- 10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday.

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