When hunting for the cuisine of any country or ethnic group, Colfax Avenue is not a bad place to start. This month I'm looking for pupusas, the stuffed tortillas of El Salvador, and there are at least three restaurants on Colfax east of Quebec Street that either specialize in Salvadorean cuisine or offer pupusas on menus filled with other Latin American dishes. El Chalate, decked out in the blue and white of the Salvadorean flag, puts El Salvador first, but also dishes up a number of Mexican plates.
A pupusa is a soft corn masa disk stuffed with a variety of different fillings and then fried on a griddle. The result is crusty and a little chewy on the outside and soft and steamy on the inside. Typical fillings include cheese, loroco (flower buds of a vining tropical plant), ayote (a kind of squash) and chicharron. Pupusas, like many of the world's pocket foods, are comforting and simply delicious when properly prepared and cooked. A doughy exterior with just a little crunch surrounding a hidden treasure of soft and gooey filling could be used to settle many of the world's differences.
El Chalate itself is not unlike a pupusa: a little rough on the outside, but warm and cozy on the inside, with cheery colors, travel posters on the walls (from El Salvador, as well as many other parts of the globe) and a small market at the front with Salvadorean foods and soccer jerseys. The service is friendly and efficient and the pace is relaxed; many of the customers who were already there when I arrived were still enjoying their meals as I was paying my bill. On a weekday lunch, most of the tables were filled -- with families, groups of co-workers, and young Denverites looking for a bargain lunch.
And a bargain it was: Four pupusas and a tamarindo beverage came in at $8 and change, and was enough food for two lunches. I munched on a basket of (free) tortilla chips with a smooth, mild salsa before stuffing myself with two pupusas, one filled with chicharron and the other with ayote and cheese. (The other two went home for a later meal.) Salvadorean chicharron in not pork rinds, but is instead similar to Mexican carnitas: minimally seasoned pork cooked low and slow so that the fine-shredded meat, almost a course paste, makes for easy eating inside the masa shell.
The finely grated ayote, mixed with creamy, white cheese, had a distinct but mild squash flavor closer to green summer squash like zucchini rather than dense butternut or acorn. Pupusas are traditionally served with a cabbage salad called curtido that's similar to coleslaw, and a thin salsa roja. El Chalate makes both the curtido and the salsa roja very mild, so those expecting more fire might want to ask for something with more kick.
Denver doesn't harbor a huge Salvadorean population, but we're lucky to have a few choices for where to buy fresh-made pupusas and other dishes from the tiny Central American country. Food this simple, filling and basically pleasurable should be everyday eating in our city, just like tacos, empanadas and tamales have become.
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