Next to 50-cent tacos, Salvadoran restaurants are the most endangered food genre in Orange County. We have enough of a Salvi population to keep about a dozen or so pupuserias alive—but the population is at that unfortunate nexus at which it's either assimilating out of the mother cuisine or moving to the Inland Empire, thereby stymying the opening of new places and ensuring the slow attrition of the scene that remains. Yet when El Curtido on the corner of Broadway and Fifth Street closed a couple of years back, I didn't care: the food was so-so, and the owner a virago who cared only about herself (long story, but a true one).
Everyone figured a hipster place would open at the space given SanTana's recent gentrification; no one expected a Salvadoran restaurant to replace another Salvadoran restaurant. Yet that's exactly what happened with the opening of Izalco in May. It transformed the El Curtido building from a cramped dining room of garish pastels and faux-tropical trappings into an airy area featuring stunning paintings, exposed ceilings, and communal tables encouraging people to talk and share. Chef Fernando Vallardes' pupusas are fat, cheesy and perfectly crispy, and even his curtido is memorable, spicier than the norm and arriving in large jars. This is a kid with chops: A sampler plate comes arranged as carefully as a bento box; an order of camarones à la diabla features a complex sauce equal parts spicy, cheesy, gritty and smooth. Vallardes obviously has ambitions and the talent to match—he even has on his team a pastry chef who whips up Salvadoran favorites such as tres leches cake and a quesadilla (not the Mexican tortilla with cheese, but a sort of cornbread mixed with cheese—toasty, earthy, wonderful).
As much as I like the food at Izalco, it still has a lot of work to do—as with the volcano it's named for, it's partly dormant. The service is forgetful and chronically late—entrées come before appetizers, and customers who came after others sometimes get their orders first. While genuinely nice and caring, the chef has succumbed to the unfortunate recent trend of talking to customers at the expense of what's happening in the kitchen. And since he is young and talented, I challenge Vallardes to expand the menu past the tried-and-true and toward rarities and his own spins to ensure his cooking stays with us, as owning a Salvadoran restaurant becomes as much a relic here as an orange grove.
Izalco, 300 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 973-0554; www.izalco-restaurant.com.
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This column appeared in print as "Saving Salvadoran."