Restaurante El Salvadoreño
I know a guy whose cardinal rule for dining out is to avoid restaurants attached to motels. Somewhere along the way, one traumatic experience permanently soured him on the convenient, midcentury-modern notion of eating next door to where people sleep.
I maintain that he’s missing out. These days, motels tend to lease their café spaces, so it’s not always one operation running two businesses (one reason he cites for avoiding such places), and the guaranteed steady trickle of a traveling clientele can shore up a restaurant in its early days. These businesses are often owned by hardworking families who have learned to cater to the demands of picky, tired tourists. And in the manner of any place that can be considered a “hole in the wall,” a motel-adjacent eatery just might offer surprisingly great cuisine for a good value.
To enter Restaurante El Salvadoreño, situated next to the Days Inn on Cerrillos Road, is to pass into a world of Salvadoran pride, a slightly scruffy rec-room-style space bursting with colorful flags, wall hangings, hammocks, and pictures that celebrate the tiny Central American nation. The TV is tuned to Univision, Spanish music is playing, and there are ample clean tables available, along with a kind and efficient waitstaff. The restaurant is rarely very crowded, so it’s possible to linger over its unique fare while watching the nation’s
La Selecta play some serious fútbol. The menu features 17 varieties of pupusas, generous combination plates of surf and turf (together or separate), soups, tamales, some egg-centric breakfast options, tortas, aguas frescas, fresh-squeezed juices, milkshakes, and hamburgers and hot dogs for the more unadventurous traveler. We browsed the pupusa section, ordering one each of the calabacitas (zucchini and cheese), revuelta (beans, cheese, and pork), chile verde (green chile and cheese), and chicken. These were delivered in a slip-sliding heap to the table, alongside a punch-colored dish of curtido (the pickled cabbage salad Salvadoreños pair with pupusas), and a watery tomato salsa. The griddled pupusas are well formed and not greasy, though their contents were hit or miss. The shaved zucchini was gummy and the pork in the revuelta too bland and pastelike, but we loved the piquant chile verde with its gooey strings of cheese, and the chicken was savory. The curtido and salsa helped kick up the flavor, but only a little — I would have welcomed a spicier condiment for these corn cakes.
Alongside the pupusas, my companion enjoyed a syrupy, nutty horchata, and I sipped a frothy pineapple agua fresca that was just the right amount of sweet. The chicken tamale, wrapped in a banana leaf, featured moist, oily masa, along with a generous portion of chicken, green olives, capers, and yucca root. Salvadorans tend to use more oil in their masa and often incorporate tortilla flour rather than tamale flour; though I’m not sure how this tamale was prepared, the flavors were novel, if not entirely to my liking. I found the masa and the chicken too greasy, but enjoyed the hearty chunks of yucca and the unexpected green brine of the olives and capers.
On a lunchtime visit, we shared the steak ranchero, a gigantic plate of glistening steak strips, thick-cut onions, and green peppers swimming in a mildly spicy red sauce and accompanied by rice, beans, a small salad of iceberg lettuce and tomato, and heavy masa tortillas. The steak was chewy but tasty, the fluffy rice made a good vehicle for the saucy vegetables, and the meal was enough for two with leftovers.
To enter Restaurante El Salvadoreño is to pass into a world of Salvadoran pride, a slightly scruffy rec-room-style space bursting with colorful flags, wall hangings, hammocks, and pictures that celebrate the tiny Central American nation.
We also split an order of the fried plantains, which arrived accompanied by more of the creamiest, most heavenly refried beans around (thank you, lard). The plantains, too, were excellent: hot, perfectly browned, sporting crispy fried edges that crackled, and then melted sweetly in our mouths. I’ll be back to fortify myself with another order next time I brave Cerrillos traffic.
We got a sweet, somewhat floral agua de tamarindo to go and cruised up the road, contemplating all the idiosyncratic factors that figure into a person’s choice of where to eat at any given time. My friend’s rule may make sense for him, but a trip to Restaurante El Salvadoreño is a clear indicator that sometimes, it pays to walk into a modest motel café.