Pupusas. Just saying the name makes me crave them. Those corn masa Frisbees filled with cheese, beans, pork and more, coming to you hot off the comal, are among those comfort foods that please the palate, fill the belly and sustain energy. It’s no wonder El Salvador has declared pupusas their national food.
La Caravana, tucked between a nail salon and a tax office on upper Lake Avenue, makes some mighty good pupusas for a fair price. They offer 11 different fillings, all of them tipicos Salvadoreños (typically Salvadoran). At $3 each they’re a deal, but the real bargain is the 10-serving Mini Pupusas Platter for $14.95. A good four inches in diameter, these “appetizers” could feed a family of three, especially with the side of curtido, a seriously spicy, somewhat funky-tasting fermented cabbage slaw and maybe some of their delicious chicken noodle soup.
My favorite pupusa varieties are the revueltas with pork, cheese and beans, the ayote con queso with diced cooked zucchini and the queso con loroco with bits of loroco flower, the flavorful bud of a Central American vine. The chicharron, frijoles, pollo and loca (revueltas with loroco) fillings are also good. The cheese is often the star in the pupusas, a tangy cross between farmer’s cheese, mozzarella and queso fresco. There’s really no need to order the plain cheese variety since all the pupusas are heavier on queso than any other ingredient and they all tend to be slick with oil. I attempted to try all 11 flavors, but alas, even though I asked for 10 different ones on the mini platter, I think I only got seven. My guess is that the pepperoni, the jalapeno and the spinach are just as tasty.
They serve more than pupusas at La Caravana but, save for a few items, you’re better off sticking with them. I already mentioned the chicken soup which may have some oily spots on top but is so tasty and full of vegetables. I also adored their ensalata which is not a salad at all but a fruit cocktail drink ($2.50). Tiny cubes of apple, pear and pineapple float in a fruit-ade that’s sweeter than lemonade and just as refreshing. The Salvadoran style horchata has a nice flavor but an unusual, powdery finish. There’s no alcohol served at La Caravana, but you can get Kolashampan, a popular Salvadoran pop which tastes sort of like cream soda (but nothing like cola or champagne).
We tried the Typical Crazy Plate when we were there, a sort of Salvadoran pu pu platter ($12.95). Between the dense corn tamale, the heavy fried cassava, the hunk of cheese and the pancake-thick tortillas, it was all very stick-to-your-ribs. There’s a less spicy curtido included here and a simple tomato sauce that cuts the fattiness of the fried foods. I very much enjoyed the slightly caramelized plantain and the casamiento, a mix of rice and black beans.
For an entree, my friend followed the server’s suggestion and ordered the brocheta of grilled steak and shrimp with tomatoes, bell peppers and onions ($13.95). It’s not unlike fajitas. The veggies and shell-on shrimps were good but the steak had some definite gristle going on. Still, it all had a nice charbroiled flavor and comes with some fragrant rice. The one thing I could not stomach, however, was the Sopa de Pescado. I love me some fish soup, and while it had sizable chunks of salmon and catfish, it had a fishy aroma, water-logged bits of fish skin, too-big vegetables and many bones. The broth was close to flavorless and the fish made your molars stick together. I couldn’t help but picture a careless cook with a big meat cleaver whacking away at fish and vegetables willy nilly and throwing them in a used pot. So don’t get that. No, get the pupusas.
While La Caravana would be a good take-out option, consider eating in. The awning outside declaring “Salvadorian Food” may be aging but don’t let that deter you from entering. Arbor-covered booths and cascading greenery mix with Central American art, white tablecloths and cumbia music for a refined yet jungly experience. The punched tin lights are dim so you feel like you’re in another world for an hour or so.
Be careful about parking on Lake as it is only for one hour. There is a parking lot behind La Caravana but you must enter the restaurant from the front. (Don’t mistakenly go into the nearby Llego el Sabor restaurant which recently took the place of the Oaxacan eatery, Alibrijes.) Service at La Caravana can be slow and Spanish is the main language spoken, so plan accordingly. The servers are very nice, however, and the atmosphere is comfortable and relaxed.
They also serve breakfast at this cute restaurant. Scrambled eggs with ham, beans and a couple of homemade tortillas might be really nice with some Central American coffee on a Sunday morning. And I’m very curious about their empanadas de platano de leche, a warm, sweet plantain pie oozing with milk custard.