Scenes from a tamal

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Casey Sanchez

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.

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