Landlocked Littleton may be a world away from the small, tropical country of El Salvador, but one couple is determined to bridge the gap between the two cultures with pupusas — a hand-sized portable meal made from cornmeal flour and stuffed with ingredients like cheese, chicharrón, refried beans and loroco (a Central American flower).
Emigrating from Chalatenango, a small village in El Salvador, Ana Dalila left her childhood home but could not leave behind her mother’s pupusa recipes. “My wife grew up making pupusas with her mom when she was little,” explains Ana's husband, Rolando Guerra. “In our country, there are very small towns, so they make pupusas especially on the weekends. They would make a lot, and their whole village would stop by their little restaurant. It was fun for them, and my wife worked hard all of the time. Our pupusas are from more than twenty years of experience.”
Although from the same country, Dalila and Guerra did not meet until they worked together at another restaurant in Colorado, where they fell in love and got married shortly thereafter. Life in the United States was really falling into place for the couple until pandemic shutdowns led to both of them being laid off.
To cope, Dalila turned to pupusas. “We started cooking at home and making pupusas, and started sharing them with people we know and friends,” says Guerra. “We did this for about four months; after that we started to look for a more formal place.”
With no previous ownership experience, Dalila and Guerra initially faced many hurdles. “It was very difficult because we did not run a business before; we worked for others,” Guerra recalls. “The lenders for the [Littleton] place did not trust us because we had no experience. We applied the first time, didn’t go through. Applied a second time, it didn’t go through, too. But finally the third time, they approved [the Littleton] location.”
El Lucero is located in Littleton at the corner of West Littleton Boulevard and South Windermere Street.
The space at 1500 West Littleton Boulevard in Littleton was formerly home to a Mexican restaurant called El Lucero. Dalila and Guerra reopened it as El Lucero Salvadoran & Mexican Restaurant
in November 2020, serving pupusas and other native Salvadoran dishes along with the Mexican menu that was offered under its previous owners.
Spreading the word about pupusas in a burrito- and taco-obsessed city proved difficult. “When we started this place, nobody knew pupusas, but had a curiosity about them,” says Guerra. “I told people, you have to try at least one, and if you don’t love it, you don’t have to pay.”
El Lucero offers a variety of pupusas averaging around $4 each. The most popular option is the mixed pupusa stuffed with refried beans, pork belly and mozzarella cheese. Sticking to traditional cooking methods, El Lucero uses fresh, never frozen or canned, ingredients that take hours to prepare.
“To make pupusas is a little bit hard, especially the refried beans," Guerra explains. "You have to steam the beans for four hours, then let them get cold, then blend all those beans, re-fry them with all of the ingredients we use, then cook them another four hours. It takes me one day just for beans!”
Guerra highly recommends that guests try the Salvadoran favorites, queso loroco and queso ayote. “[Loroco] is a little bitter, but when mixed with mozzarella, it’s an indescribable flavor. It’s so good," he says. "Another popular one is the squash that we call ayote. We crush the ayote, mix it with water and salt it before adding the mozzarella.”
Rolando Guerra at the Littleton location of his family-owned restaurant El Lucero.
Pupusas may be the star of Salvadoran cuisine, but El Lucero also offers a variety of other traditional dishes. “Salvadoran food is street food: pupusas, tamales and coffee,” notes Guerra. “We have a great tamale with cornmeal dough stuffed with mixed vegetables. We can add chicken or pork, and it’s wrapped in banana leaf. That dish is very popular on weekends in El Salvador.”
Because agriculture plays a major role in the country’s economy, many dishes are light and paired with vegetables or beans. “In El Salvador, instead of pancakes, we fry plantains every morning,” says Guerra. “Our regular breakfast is refried beans — we have like four to five different ways to make refried beans — served with fresh cheese, sour cream, fried plantains and handmade tortillas.”
Excited about the success but painfully remembering the long process to open the Littleton restaurant, Dalila and Guerra started applying to open another restaurant. “When we applied for the second location, it was easy,” Guerra chuckles. “They approved it in 24 hours! We got really surprised. We were not prepared for that.”
Pupusas El Lucero opened last February at 2127 South Sheridan Boulevard. Now with two restaurants, Guerra hopes to share his food with even more people. “I recommend, for all the people who have never tried pupusas, to try it. You’ll love it,” he concludes.
El Lucero Salvadoran & Mexican Restaurant is located at 1500 West Littleton Boulevard in Littleton, and Pupusas El Lucero is located at 2127 South Sheridan Boulevard. Both are open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. For more information, visit ellucerorestaurant.com.