Scenes from a tamal
It is true that almost no one goes to a shopping center in search of fine dining. That said, there are still lower-budget restaurant standards, many of them barely noticeable until some of the basics of food service are violated. When I showed up at Sanbusco Market Center’s El Tesoro Café at 5 p.m. on a weekday, hoping to grab dinner before heading home, the New Mexican-cum-El Salvadoran restaurant was out of everything I tried to order. El Tesoro had not only exhausted its supply of signature yucca fritters and pupusas (Central American stuffed corn cakes) but had even run out of salsa. “Sorry man, we’re slacking,” was the response the young server gave to my slackjawed look. So I settled for black-bean tostadas and a chicken tamal (an El Salvadoran tamale) with rice. Salsaless in Sanbusco, the tostadas took to guacamole well enough, but it was all downhill from there.
The “Chimayó rice” (really just red rice) was served cool, while the tamal was a study in seriously dashed expectations. Traditionally wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf for taste and texture, this tamal came with just a small strand of the green leaf across the top for garnish. Nonetheless, the corn masa was delightfully dense, chewy, and fresh. The same could not be said of its filling, a milky mix of stewed chicken and peas that tasted more like Midwestern pot pie than Central American comfort food. My companion ordered salmon tacos that were dry and bland, served with rice that was also cool to the touch. His strawberry licuado (a Latin American milkshake) was prepared without any sweetener, so it tasted more like a breakfast diet drink than the rich, liquid dessert it should have been.
Two things redeemed this dinner that was, well, subtropical. All the meals came with an escabeche salad, a crunchy, vinegary mix of cabbage, carrots, and peppers whose mild spice might be the most picoso thing on this menu. Also, El Tesoro is one of this city’s few places where one may order fried plantains, and the café respects this pan-Caribbean staple. Sweet and caramelized to a soft-crisp on the outside, these tostones are extremely well executed. They could be eaten with breakfast or taken for a lunchtime or dinner dessert.
We returned a couple of days later for the restaurant’s bustling lunch service. All the tables were full, and a staff of busy cooks and servers scrambled behind the counter. Pupusas, yucca fritters, and salsa flowed freely. Essentially soft, stuffed corn tortillas, pupusas are the national food of El Salvador, as common and iconic as curry in India or baguettes in France. Stuffed with a range of fillings from marinated pork, beans, and cheese to cooked greens, the cornmasa pancakes came hot off the griddle, scrumptious and savory. My favorite was the loroco pupusa. Loroco is the Spanish name for an edible, flowering vine that grows throughout Central America. Its flowers and buds impart a wonderful tang when cooked, redolent of Southern-style green beans cooked with onions. Perhaps in deference to American tastes, this loroco pupusa came with a heavy smothering of cheese.
We also ordered the yucca fritters. Not for the starch-phobic, these fried tubers (also known as cassava root) have a leg up on French fries with their crisp coating and chewy, velvety center. Both the pupusas and the fried yucca, however, seemed to lack a suitable dipping sauce fit for such snack-friendly appetizers. Instead we received an espresso-sized cup of barely spiced tomato sauce that was depleted within a few bites.
When it comes to drinks, lunch is, again, a much better time to visit. Our banana licuado came swirled with sugar and cinnamon in a frothy, iced glass. I ordered an agua de limón, a weapons-grade version of limeade that was lightly sweetened and barely diluted. On a hot day, it has intense reviving powers, and as a pick-me-up, I would take it over any socalled energy drink any day.
All that said, El Tesoro is delightful if inconsistent, and fares better under the lunchtime sun than it does at dinnertime dusk. Like many casual cafés, its service is uneven, and the food varies from subpar to spectacular. Perhaps it is best to just strike up a conversation with the servers and find out what is good that day — as opposed to what sounds interesting on the menu.