Lupita's Is a PeeWee Pupusa Place

[Hole In the Wall] The Costa Mesa dive specializes in Salvadoran and Guatemalan cuisine

Lupita's is a claustrophobic place, a walk-in closet that's two rows of four tables lined up against a wall, an empty space between said rows that only allows enough wiggle room to approach the counter for an order, with pictures of dishes above your head and menus eyeing each other with competing specials. The kitchen is bigger than this dining room, and the always-blasting television always tuned to telenovelas gives Lupita's the atmosphere of a converted garage in Montebello where the abuelitos live.

Amazingly, most people eat in, meaning weekends see lines of people wanting to eat at one of the few Salvadoran restaurants in Orange County, and one of only three that sell honest-to-goodness Guatemalan food (there's a Mexican component to the menu, but it's about as pertinent to this review as Del Taco). Chuchitos, miniature Guatemalan tamales, with a lightly sauced interior, please, as does the enchilada, what Mexicans know as a tostada. It's a Tikal Temple of pickled beets and ground beef that nearly makes its crunchy foundation buckle, and while there's nothing spicy about it at all, the sourness of the beets coupled with the beef will make you prefer this to any tostada sold in la naranja.

Those are pleasant surprises, but Lupita's true focus is Salvadoran. There are pupusas, of course, epic expanses of nicely toasted masa stuffed with your choice of cheese, meat, flowery loroco and even jalapeño to placate the Mexis. The Salvadoran breakfast of fried plantains and fried black beans separated by salty créme fraîche fills as much as a Norms special. I've never liked Salvadoran tamales much, but I had never tried a tamal pisque until finding them here: quivering masa engorged by a vein of refried black beans, all wrapped in a banana leaf. They even sell nuegados con chilate, a sort of tea and biscuits that finds fried yucca chunks served in a bowl of chilate, a spiced atole made from chocolate—the Lucky Charms of Central America.

And don't be lured astray by the percolating trio of jamaica (hibiscus), horchata and tamarindo: the owners stock ensalada, the Salvadoran fruit drink consisting of apple and orange bits and whole nance in pineapple juice; the resulting shades of sweetness is something that no drink on the planet can approximate, nor its refreshing vigor, save for nuoc mia. Lupita's has other surprises that pop up on the cardboard specials that appear and disappear like a blooming cactus flower, and the service is as spotty as the television's reception, but when you sip on that ensalada, none of that matters at all.

 

This column appeared in print as "PeeWee Pupusa Place."

 
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