Photo by Jessica CalkinsThe Spanish menu entry antojitos translates as "appetizers," but the expression connotes more than mere snacks. It derives from the noun antojo, which describes the cravings unique to pregnant women. Antojitos, then, is "little cravings," and Latinos know that their before-the-main-meal bites should be so appetizing that expectant females snarl at husbands to seek these delights at ungodly hours.
The antojitos of Salvadoran cooking especially impress—greasy pupusas, 10-stone tamales and an infinite variety of yucca snacks are only the best known—so it's remarkable more future fathers don't mollify their gestating gals with a trip to Pupusería San Sivar.
As at any Salvadoran restaurant, the Costa Mesa hole-in-the-strip-mall takes special care with their pupusas; the flour-based small cakes resemble their Mexican cousin the gordita (but you'll get a fist in the face if you share that comparison with a guanaco—a native Salvadoran) and are the anchor of every Salvadoran meal. The pupusas here are perfect: a crispy yet malleable crust encases thick, sticky cheese and a soothing choice (or combination) of beans, chewy pork or the bitter flower bud loroco.
What distinguishes San Sivar pupusas from those of other pupuserías, however, is rice flour. The difference between a rice-based and corn-based pupusa is like that between Gouda and Brie. Each is superb, but the rice flour exhibits a lightness that doesn't overwhelm the other flavors as corn masa tends to deliciously do. For a dime extra (rice flour is more expensive), San Sivar will cook a rice pupusa to indulge the inner sophisticate. Regardless of pupusa choice, it remains incomplete without a topping of pupusa-specific mild salsa and the sour/spicy slaw curtido.
Give a man two to three pupusas, and he has lunch; give him a tamale, and he eats for a week. Monstrous as they may be, though, Salvadoran tamales usually suffer from flavorlessness because they're steamed and have the consistency of Jell-O. But thick masa stabilizes San Sivar's tamales, ensuring that the succulent flavor of the shredded chicken and pork inside is not boiled away.
If a Salvadoran restaurant masters pupusas and tamales, it becomes a must-eat joint, but San Sivar continues their antojitos showcase with pastelitos de puerco. Tiny flaky turnovers presented as a trio, the pastelitos' gooey interior of tender pork bits and various juicy vegetables rival even the warmest chicken pot pies for rustic savor.
Central American cuisine uses plantains to offset the heaviness of these and other dishes, but San Sivar offers the dulcet fruit in specialized dishes. The empanada de platano is a fried plantain tamale bursting with delicate arroz con leche pudding while an oily, impossibly sugary plantain laying alongside refried beans is like a battle between the lush tropics and the spartan plains of the country on the tongue; a side of sweet Salvadoran sour cream negotiates a tasteful truce.
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But the strangest antojito San Sivar serves is nuegados con chilate. Few Salvadoran restaurants make this breakfast meal. The rarity of the dish is inexplicable; nuegados con chilate is the type of meal IHOP would usurp and pass off as its own, complete with goofy name. Truckers would welcome the fried plantains and yucca patties (the aforementioned chilate) swimming in an thin-but-sticky honey and warm themselves with the bowl of nuegado (a sort of bland corn gruel that is a needed relief from the almost-debilitating sweetness of the chilate) that accompanies the starchy fritters.
San Sivar's emphasis on antojitos doesn't mean the restaurant ignores entrées. The salpicón is an intriguingly sour minced-beef salad cooked with a hint of mint and mounds of refreshing repollo and onions. The gallina en crema de Guatemala comes baked in a creamy sauce that goes well with an accompanying Guatemalan green salsa that's more spicy than hot. And El Salvador's other national dish—sopa de patas (beef feet soup)—spills over its boiling bowl with tripe, yucca, foot and other vegetables unique to the tiny nation.
Pupusería San Sivar also serves Mexican food, but don't bother. Sure, it's good and perhaps one of the better Costa Mesa Mexican restaurants that's not in the West Side. But you go to San Sivar because you have an antojofor great Salvadoran food, no? Submit to your cravings.
PUPUSERÍA SAN SIVAR, LOCATED AT 1940 HARBOR BLVD., COSTA MESA, IS OPEN SUN.-SAT., 10 A.M.-10 P.M. (949) 650-2952. NO ALCOHOL. DINNER FOR TWO, $5-$12, FOOD ONLY. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.