Photo by Jack GouldI have a Salvadoran friend (I'll call him "Sal") who gets pissed-off whenever someone calls him a Mexican. After he's finished ranting about the evils of mistaken ethnic identity, I always comment that Sal should be honored every time he's mistaken for a Mexican since all Central Americans secretly aspire to be Mexicans anyway. These arguments usually end with Sal calling me a wetback and me calling him a jungle bunny.
In a show of Latino solidarity—and to shove the superiority of our respective cultures in each other's faces—we recently agreed to try each other's native food. I was the first to take the cultural culinary challenge at Sal's favorite Salvadoran eatery, El Curtido. He insisted on accompanying me to distinguish what was authentically Salvadoran from what was "influenced by you beaners."
El Curtido is located in the kind of building you generally find only in Edward Hopper paintings. The ceiling-to-floor windows provide you with a view of the street no matter where you sit in the restaurant—no booths or lonely souls, though. The pastel color scheme that dominates the restaurant—right down to the table linens—is authentically Salvadoran, according to Sal. Picturesque paintings of jungle and coastal scenes adorn the walls. "Just how it is back home," says Sal, conveniently forgetting the United States-sponsored civil war during the '80s and the earthquake-ravaged towns of today, but since I am his guest and I don't want an ass-whipping, I refrain from comment.
As an appetizer, we are given chips and salsa—a "damn Mexican influence," according to Sal. They are very tasty, though, which even he grudgingly admits. For a drink, I choose one of my favorite beverages—horchata—and I'm willing to concede that Salvadoran horchata is better: a bit thicker and much sweeter than the Mexican version, and it seems to have cinnamon or maybe even chocolate undertones. That's one point for the Salvadorans, canceled out only by the fact that they suffered the biggest thrashing in World Cup soccer history in 1982, losing 10-1.
Sal recommended casamiento, a vegetarian's—but not vegan's—delight of black beans and rice with eggs, avocado, thick cream and a piece of really salty cotija cheese on the side. It is delicious, even with my grinning friend nodding "I told you so" as I wolf down every morsel. I am a meat man, though, so as an added bonus, I order a pupusa.
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Pupusas look identical to gorditas, a point I try to hammer to Sal, who will hear none of it. They are made of flour, just like gorditas, but have no opening so they must be eaten with a knife and fork. Pupusas can be ordered with chicken, pork or cheese. Mine comes with cheese, chicharrón (crispy pork) and loroco, which is some sort of plant that Sal cannot translate into English or even Mexican Spanish. Take my word, though: it is tasty. Regardless of what type of pupusa you order, make sure to put curtido on it, which the restaurant provides free of charge. Curtido is similar to sauerkraut except sourer and spicier, adding a taste any Bavarian would savor.
My meal also comes with tortillas, Salvadoran-style. Salvadoran tortillas are smaller and much thicker than Mexican tortillas. You do not roll them; instead, you put your food on top and eat them as you would a tostada. Sal insists that tortillas are native to El Salvador, but I laugh this off as a futile attempt to emulate a superior culture.
What was the end result of our delicatessen détente? A full stomach, a cheap bill and a slight thaw in our Salvadoran-Mexican Cold War.
El Curtido, located at 300 W. 5th St., Santa Ana, is open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (714) 973-0554. Dinner for two, $18, food only. Beer and wine. All major credit cards accepted.