Pupusas are cheap and cheerful, exceptionally hearty, stuffed and griddled disks of slaked cornmeal or rice flour that originated in El Salvador. They invariably cost less than $3 in even the most stylish restaurants, and are most likely available somewhere near you.
We learned three very important things when sampling them across L.A. The first is that there are five standard fillings to choose from: beans, cheese, minced pork (chicharrón, which is ground pork in this case, and not fried skin), loroco (a type of vine flower) and revuelta, which consists of beans, cheese and pork. And while the beans will for sure have lard, the masa itself won't, so this is a perfect vegetarian meal if you order correctly.
Second, and really most important, is that they do not come quickly, ever, so just put that out of your mind; this isn't fast food. The third lesson is that a pupusa is an incredibly formulaic thing. Variations on the theme are nuanced at best. Every spot will serve you a plate with your pupusas, some Tapatio hot sauce, a squeeze bottle of mild pureed salsa rojo and a help-yourself container of curtido, which is a slightly pickled cabbage slaw with carrots and oregano. For our list, we obviously took in to consideration taste and then the general atmosphere of the pupuseria, the assortment of fillings offered, and the accompaniments. Turn the page.
10. La Guanaquita:
When you walk in to this panderia y pupuseria at the corner of Santa Monica and Vine, you hear the rhythmic thwacking sound of pupusas being formed by hand, which is a very good sign. The grandmotherly owner is hard at work in back and behind the counter as she has been for years, making sure that your food is made just so. The individual pupusas had the smallest diameter of any we encountered and can be ordered in your choice of the standard five fillings, plus spinach or chicken.The extra charm of this place lies in the fact that everything is served in hyper-up-to-date square dishware. 6242 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 962-3151.
This is not someplace you're going to want to plonk yourself down for a long meal. The restaurant is tiny and stuffy and the television is cranked to compete with the festive ranchero music. But the ladies cautiously avoiding you in the back kitchen are making some delightful pupusas. Thicker than most and served with what was by far — and thankfully — the spiciest curtido we tried. We recommend the plain version, which is bursting with Salvadoran quesillo cheese. 820 North Western Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 463-3512.
Located in downtown's Grand Central Market, Sarita's has been serving up pupusas for the hungry masses for more than ten years. Of their 15 options, we highly recommend the classic revueletas and suggest avoiding the canned vegetables and mushrooms. Perhaps it's just a fluke of their location — but you can also get a mozzarella-basil version and there's a towering bottle of Sriracha in addition to Tapatio, which makes this the only cross-cultural place we encountered. Free parking with validation in the Grand Central Market lot. 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles; (213) 626-6320.
Turn the page for picks 7 through 5...
7. Los Molcajetes:
This restaurant hasn't got time to fix the sagging tables and chipped countertops or to cover up the fact it must have at one point been a nautically themed bar. They're much too busy feeding people their thick-mash, $2-each pupusas. The red bean filling is creamy but the pork filling could use some salt — then again, that's what the freshly made curtido is for. It's family-friendly, but alarmingly loud, with a jukebox endlessly blaring pop music. Cash only. 1800 West 8th St., Los Angeles; (213) 388-8994.
We like to think of Delmy's as gateway pupusas. The farmers market staple is bringing the food of the (El Salvadoran) people to all the other people, and we praise them for it. Their version cuts corners by mixing the ingredients into the masa, but it's an interesting take on the usual, and most likely speeds things up for everyone impatiently waiting to get back to buying beautiful produce. Ivar Ave. & Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 463-3171.
An upscale Salvadoran restaurant with a full bar that serves pupusas? Yes, please, and then some. The masa they use is expertly hand-ground on site, which gives it a distinct, almost pebbly texture that's delicate and easy to cut in to. It's rolled thin and puffs up when griddled. The chicharrón is juicy and flavorful, while the loroco is faintly spinach-like and assertive in a way that cuts through the rich cheese it's paired with. While you're there, make sure to try the refreshing ensalada fruit drink. 4493 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 661-1985.
Keep reading for number 4 on ...
Every table in this brightly lit place seems always to be filled with young families and business people enjoying huge, inexpensive plates of food. Family owned and run for the last 12 years, you'll be made to feel welcome. Like every single other place on this list, things take time to get to the table — but be patient, you'll be rewarded with classic 8-inch pupusas that are thick, dense and griddled to give them a nice leopard-print char. They make excellent breakfasts as well. 12627 Hawthorne Blvd., Hawthorne; (310) 679-4379.
Walk in and there's as good a chance that Anthony Bourdain will be on the television as a soccer game. The music will be soft; the servers will be smiling. We were exceptionally impressed with the rice flour pupusas, which were crispy on the exterior and sticky-chewy when bitten into — the kind of sticky that catches in your teeth, like caramel, but better. The ayote (pumpkin) was a hit, with its sweet autumnal kick. We particularly loved that jalapeños are added to any mix upon request. The pupusas aren't greasy at all, so while you're there, you may as well order some of their outstanding fried chicken and a glass of beer to wash it all down. 4693 W. Century Blvd., Inglewood; (310) 671-5147.
To be clear, El Baron de Centro America has two locations, a very large one and the terrific little lunch counter version. Walk through the door into the utilitarian space with the bright tablecloths and you'll notice that the room is perfumed with warm corn, stewing beef and chiles. The pupusas made by a young woman behind the counter are almost wafer thin, with a headiness that catches you off-guard. The curtido is the absolute best in the city, if your idea of the best is slightly pickled, with just enough oregano to give it an additional twist. The gallon-sized jar of pickled carrots and peppers on the tables had our eyes popping and mouths on fire. 2757 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 734-5772.
And for our top pick...
The flawless 6-inch pupusas from Los Cocos are served redolent with the scent of corn, absolutely brimming with cheese in some and smoky pork in the others. The cheese sometimes spills over onto the grill, adding an extra dimension of crispiness. There are at least 14 varieties listed on the wall-mounted menu, including several vegan options which we tried and were duly impressed with. The curtido is chopped and has a hint of purple cabbage that stains it a charming light pink color. The salsa rojo is exactly like every other place we tried — but the additional brick red salsa brings it all together. Does it take 15 minutes to get to you? Yes. Is it worth the wait? Absolutely. 4804 1/2 S. Centinela Ave., Los Angeles; (310) 636-1043.
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We know that there are at least 200 pupuserias in the greater Los Angeles area, so we would love to hear where you get your fix. Not that we care to eat one again for a long, long time — unless you're buying.
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