The origins of this week's food mash-up trace back to a particularly reflective pupusa run a few weeks ago. To be clear, we love the pupusa in all it's crisp-edged, cheese-oozing glory, and given the ubiquitous status of the Salvadorian staple these days it's clear that its a populist favorite to boot (pupuseria may soon eclipse taqueria as the city's dominant -eria). Few things bring us more joy than a triple stack of pupusas piled high like Sunday morning pancakes.
One small qualm, or more accurately, one aspect with potential for improvement, is the toppings that usually accompany pupusas. There is curtido, the roughly chopped vinegared coleslaw that resembles something a hapless Latin line cook might whip up if pressed for a last-minute sauerkraut. Then there is the mild, watery salsa roja, a version far divorced from the fiery chile-spiked version commonplace in Mexico. Unlike their northern neighbors, many Central Americans aren't as keen on spice. Salvadoran salsa roja, even in its purest form, tastes remarkably similar to warmed over Campbell's seasoned with a handful of oregano.
That said, when we found ourselves at Hollywood's Lempira Restaurant recently, a superb pupuseria that serves Honduran-style pupusas as opposed to Salvadoran-style (hint: there's not much of a difference) we pushed the curtido aside. Instead, we opted to import a much more potent slaw: Som Tam, also know as green papaya salad, a spicy Thai favorite made from shredded unripened papaya, peanut, tomato, long beans, dried shrimp, chile, lime juice, and fish sauce.
Melted cheese and fish sauce? The risk for disaster was admittedly high, yet we pressed on.
It may seem serendipitously convenient that a Thai restaurant is located next door to Lempira, but be warned. Even if the food was exceptionally spectacular (it's not), we could not in good conscious recommend a place whose dining room reeks so heavily of muscle relaxer (the other half of the space is dedicated to a Thai massage parlor frequented by older gentlemen wearing sunglasses).
Fortunately, a whole host of excellent Thai restaurants are located a measly four blocks westward, a distance tenable even for flat-footed Angelenos. There's Sapp's Coffee Shop, famous for it's offal-heavy soups, or Samuluang Café, famous for it's 3 a.m.-crowd-pleasing Pad See Eew.
We choose Krua Siri, though; a small storefront that boasts a "secret" translated Thai menu of Issan dishes, as well as a ripping good green papaya salad. We ordered ours "Thai Spicy," a level that will requires confirming your request to the hostess several times. It's worth it. The taste of a chilled salad that gives you the hot sweats can boggle the senses.
Once the pupusas were finally topped with papaya salad the combination proved mutually beneficial. The layers of masa cool off the heat from the copious amounts of chile. The sweet green papaya matches the satisfying crunch of curtido, but adds an entirely new level of pungent salty tang. The odd sensation of chewing a rogue piece of dried shrimp caught in strands of melted cheese may not sound like your kind of thing, but it makes for an interesting combination nonetheless.
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Note: Michael Voltaggio, if you happen to be reading this, perhaps frantically brainstorming a few more last-minute recipes for tonight's Ink. opening, let us helpfully suggest the pupusa-papaya combo. If you choose otherwise, we completely understand.