I’ve stolen three items in my years: The Beatles’ Past Masters: Volume Two from Bargain Warehouse in Fullerton in eighth grade, Neal Cassady’s The First Third and a glass of horchata from EL AMANECER about three years ago. Only the last incident was justified: The owner and waitress were rude, and a customer was on the verge of kicking my ass for no good reason. I had just settled into a booth in the tiny Salvadoran café, had ordered only an horchata before tiring of the affair and left without paying.
Last week, I decided to own up. Even if I wasn’t going to review the place, I planned to at least fork over the cash for the horchata, since it was delicious with cinnamon undertones and a thick, gritty consistency. But from the moment I entered El Amanecer (“The Sunrise” in Spanish), I knew the restaurant had changed. A jovial, portly man ran the shop now, and paintings of Salvadoran natural wonders dotted the walls where tacky posters once hung. An even better development was the menu—radically different from what I remembered and cheaper than ever.
El Amanecer is the rare Salvadoran restaurant where pupusas are an afterthought. Oh, the national meal is on the menu, large and cheesy and only slightly greasy, but there are also plenty of dishes you can’t find anywhere else in the county. Start with the riguas, two sweet-corn pancakes that harden quickly but soften easily in your mouth (make sure to dunk each bite into a dollop of crema fresca). The riguas can be enjoyed for breakfast or lunch, but stay away from anything else if you do order them—the treats fill you up fast. More manageable are chicken or corn tamales—steamed, small, but worth the two bucks. Combine them with an order of Salvadoran chorizo—three lean, small balls laden with pepper flakes and lemongrass.
Most Salvadoran restaurants specialize in large plates, and El Amanecer does sell chicken and beef platters that, while delicious, aren’t memorable. Better to stick with the sandwiches, massive French rolls stuffed with corn mush, casamient (black beans stewed with white rice and sprinkled with a Parmesan-like cheese) and chicken. Or try the stuffed veggies—you’ve had chile relleno, but how about a stuffed guisquil (which Mexicans know as chayote, and gabachos know as a spiked squash)? Or green beans nearly exploding with cheese? Ever had the nutty pleasures of a relleno de pacaya? El Amanecer has all these bounties. Confess your sins like I did, and leave big tips for penance.
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El Amanecer, 733 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 836-6993.