Sa­vory Sal­vado­ran

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Lau­rel Glad­den The New Mex­i­can

The res­tau­rant busi­ness along the U.S. 285 cor­ri­dor is tough. Some­times con­ve­nience rules. But epi­cures in that neck of the woods will travel far for a su­pe­rior meal. To con­vince them to save gas, time, and trou­ble, you’d bet­ter of­fer cre­ative, widely ap­peal­ing, well-pre­pared food in an invit­ing set­ting. Oth­er­wise, they’ll leave you in their down­town-bound dust.

Since 2006, the “an­chor” space at La Tienda shop­ping cen­ter (for­merly the Vil­lage at El­do­rado) has had re­volv­ing doors. Brumby’s Bar & Grill was the orig­i­nal ten­ant; af­ter sev­eral ren­o­va­tions, though, it closed in early 2009. An­other café moved in later that year but sur­vived less than six months. The lat­est con­tender is La Plan­cha, a self-de­scribed “ca­sual Latin grill” that opened in July.

Chef-owner Juan Car­los Pineda, a na­tive Sal­vado­ran, moved to Santa Fe in 1990 and, among other things, served as sous chef at the much-loved Old Mex­ico Grill. When there’s a lull in the kitchen at La Plan­cha, you might see him milling around, stop­ping at ta­bles to say hello.

Walls in bright hues cre­ate a cheer­ful am­bi­ence, even if the dé­cor is a lit­tle spar­tan and util­i­tar­ian. Staff mem­bers are friendly, at­ten­tive, knowl­edge­able, and ef­fi­cient. Their kids might be do­ing home­work at an un­oc­cu­pied ta­ble; some­times they’ll look up long enough to ask how your food is or to tell you to come back soon.

La Plan­cha serves break­fast, lunch, and din­ner six days a week and break­fast and lunch on Sun­days. The menu in­cludes stan­dards like pan­cakes, bur­ri­tos, sal­ads, sand­wiches, burg­ers, and grilled steak and fish. New Mex­i­can req­ui­sites are here, too: chips, salsa, gua­camole, en­chi­ladas, huevos rancheros, et al. But the spe­cial­ties are Sal­vado­ran.

The pu­pusa is the celebrity of Sal­vado­ran cui­sine — saucer-sized disks of sweet, nutty masa stuffed with small amounts of veg­eta­bles or meat. Top one with crisp cur­tido, a slaw­like con­coc­tion that pro­vides the per­fect tex­tu­ral con­trast to the soft corn dough and fill­ing.

Pineda makes lovely lit­tle soft tacos — you’ll only need about three bites to pol­ish one off — with ten­der han­drolled tor­tillas. We filled some with moist, slightly smoky salmon, salsa fresca, and a dab of gua­camole; the veg­gie ver­sions — sautéed mush­rooms and slightly crisp cubes of squash — were un­der­sea­soned and less im­pres­sive.

When the menu says “fresh,” Pineda means it: sal­ads of vi­brant, perky greens or salsa made of juicy ruby tomato dice, for ex­am­ple. Serv­ings are gen­er­ous, al­most to a fault; emer­ald-green rice, re­fried black beans, roasted pota­toes, and salsa fresca ac­com­pany many en­trees. I only had room for dessert on one visit. Sadly, that night, I chose poorly: an unim­pres­sive tres leches cake that tasted more like Sara Lee than Sal­vado­ran sweet tooth.

Some­times the kitchen suf­fers from fryer fail­ure: the pu­pusas, em­panadas, and plan­tains were al­ways hot but some­times ex­ces­sively, un­ap­pe­tiz­ingly greasy. Our strip steak was im­prop­erly cooked. And even a com­plex, com­pelling mole couldn’t re­deem chicken tough as a shoe sole; for­tu­nately, the sec­ond time around, the chicken was moist and ten­der.

Morn­ings fea­ture per­fectly ser­vice­able hand-held break­fast bur­ri­tos stuffed with fluffy scram­bled eggs, ten­der pota­toes, creamy mel­low cheese, and chile. If you have the time to sit down for break­fast, though, do. Given a whole plate to oc­cupy, the bur­rito be­comes a pal­ette: a swath of chile, pur­ple-black re­fried beans, golden roasted pota­toes, glis­ten­ing red and green bell pep­pers, and pale­green ice­berg topped with bold salsa fresca.

The pam­bazo sandwich (a spin on the tra­di­tional Mex­i­can ver­sion) is a sandwich only in a loose sense: airy eggs scram­bled with mild, herba­ceous sausage spill off a small chewy bo­lillo spread with smooth, earthy re­fritos that made me want to put beans on sand­wiches more of­ten. En­gulf­ing it was a jumble of pota­toes, grilled onions and pep­pers, avo­cado wedges, and more salsa fresca.

Try some­thing new. Sev­eral dishes in­cor­po­rate loroco, buds of a Cen­tral Amer­i­can flow­er­ing vine. Yuca (cas­sava root) is served both boiled and fried. Though I found it de­li­cious in a starchy way, like great steak fries, it’s salty enough to make the ocean jeal­ous. Don’t skip it if you’re salt-sen­si­tive, though; ask the kitchen to “make it plain.”

If you find your­self in El­do­rado, stop by La Plan­cha, whether you’re in the mood for Sal­vado­ran food or not. If you live out that way, you may have a new standby. The food here is cre­ative, ap­peal­ing, and well pre­pared enough to keep you com­ing back.

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