Pupuseria San Salvador sits in a small strip mall a few blocks south of Denver city limits, along a stretch of Federal Boulevard that doesn't exactly invite culinary exploration. Along with a bonsai nursery and some auto repair shops, there's Sheridan City Hall -- a utilitarian tan brick structure with a row of garage doors as its main Federal-facing architectural feature. Still, the word pupuseria stood out on the row of signs mounted on industrial blue awnings overhanging the shops where, surprisingly, we also spotted a German deli wedged alongside a barber shop and a tailor. From the parking lot, customers were visible at tables inside Pupuseria San Salvador, a good sign on a Saturday afternoon.
This tiny Salvadorean joint has just four tables, a cooler full of drinks and a small whiteboard displaying the entire menu on one wall. The proprietor -- also cook and waitress -- gestured for us to sit anywhere while she helped other customers, then disappeared into the equally tiny kitchen for a few minutes before coming back for our drink order.
We let her know that we were there for pupusas, so she informed us that she had made two kinds that day: bean and cheese, and bean and chicharron. We ordered two of each, plus a plate of yuca con chicharon -- the only other Salvadorean dish on a menu that otherwise featured a short list of Mexican antojitos. She was visibly pleased when Amy ordered in Spanish and we both admitted we knew "un poco Español" (un poquito, in my case).
The pupusas were accompanied by two bowls: one with the spicy cabbage slaw called curtido and another with a brownish salsa. The curtido had a slightly cooked appearance, perhaps evidence that it was naturally fermented rather than doused in vinegar; it was mildly tart and imbued with oregano and the gentle heat of bits of diced jalapeño. The salsa was on the milder side, too, but had a fresh flavor of recently pureed tomato, garlic, onions and chile.
The pupusas themselves were warm and tender and evenly griddled, so that there were no charred spots. The stringy white cheese and refried beans mingled inside but didn't leak out of any weak spots in the masa shells. Sometimes pupusas can be a little tough -- easy enough to bite through but difficult to handle with a knife and fork. These were obviously made fresh and cooked to order. The owner clearly knew how to work with masa to yield the finest results; had I been hungrier, I would have ordered some of the tortillas advertised as "hand made" on the little menu.
The yuca came in the form of lightly fried wedges smothered in more curtido and topped with a few toothsome chunks of pork. Properly cooked yuca has a creamy texture like a potato, but with a few fibrous strands like parsnip. The wedges soaked up the tart liquid from the curtido and picked up the low-intensity heat from the salsa.
With a few customers coming and going, and the proprietor checking regularly to see how we liked our food, I felt like I was at the home of a friend, sitting and chatting while courses of food came out of the kitchen. She called the younger customers mijo and mija -- son and daughter -- and even though my ears aren't trained enough to pick up Spanish spoken quickly, I could tell by her smile and affectionate tone that she was enjoying her guests.
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With so few seats in a part of town not known for Latin American food -- or any other kind, for that matter -- the line between success and failure must be a fine one. I imagine that the little woman who runs Pupuseria San Salvador must make extra money catering special events, getting up early to pat out pupusas by the dozen. Or maybe the place does a respectable lunch business with the nearby offices and businesses. One thing is certain: These pupusas, a unique find on this side of town, are definitely worth the trip.