For better or worse, we are a car culture; it's an inescapable fact, thanks to the geography of Southern California. One of the consequences of living in a car-laden part of America are strip malls, those nondescript and remarkably plain parking lots that house convenience stores, liquor marts and cell phone shacks. But strip malls are also food gold mines, and while they may lack some of the cachet of eating in a chef-driven restaurant off a market-inspired menu, dining in a strip mall can be an adventure in and of itself. Where else can you get an awesome meal and pick up your dry-cleaning at the same time?
First up: Pupusas, the Salvadoran flat bread of corn masa sandwiched with a variety of ingredients, brushed with oil and griddled until toasty.
Located in North Long Beach on a part of Atlantic that doesn't seem like much of anything you'll find Chil Tepe. Next to the Rent-A-Center, Chil Tepe is open for breakfast daily but the real stars are the pupusas in all their glory: rebueltas (mixed), chicharron, and queso con loroco, the herbally edible flower that is a signature of Salvadoran and Guatemalan cooking. It's most likely a taste you cannot quite pinpoint unless you're familiar with loroco: part herb, part ever-so-slightly green bean. And while some pupusas can be on the heavier greasy side they're just made better topped with a lightly pickled chopped cabbage slaw known as curtido. Not quite fresh and not quite super pickled, curtido adds the necessary fresh tang to an otherwise mellow corn dish that begs to be enjoyed together. If heat's your thing you'll need to try the thin salsas of habanero and tomato which are the antithesis of thick and chunky salsas. They permeate the pupusa and curtido in a way only liquid can. Unfortunately the modest grill time these pupusas spent cooking left them a bit on the soft side without the crisp edges but they were still delicious. If you find yourself with lips on fire from an extra dose of habanero (it's slow but it'll get you each and every time when you think you're in the clear) then go for Coconut Cheese flan for dessert. You'll feel as if you are eating flan and old fashioned coconut cream pie simultaneously.
If a strip mall right off the 710 doesn't embody the spirit of well, um, strip malls, nothing ever will. With traditional pupusas along with items like perch lunch plates and seafood cocktails with a Salvadoran flair, this two-room place was filled with families and locals and adorned with faded snapshots of tropical vistas straight from a travel bureau of 1981. First up was a calabasa (squash) and cheese pupusa that became a tad bit soggy when the squash yielded tons of liquid as they usually do but nothing extra curtido couldn't take care of. The pupusa rebuelta, a mixture of cheese, pork and beans, was as perfect as it could be, each bite filled with a slightly different taste of the ingredients. Others were equally as delicious and it was all washed down with a golden bottle of Kolashampan, a Salvadoran soda which tasted as if Big Red and Sprite went on vacation together.
Places like El Petapaneco in Wilmington make you realize how vast Southern California really is. One minute you're shopping in sanitized boutiques dotted along tree-lined streets and the next you're in the heart of industrial country. This restaurant is right next to a wacky and wonderful 99¢ store and has a corn-heavy menu. Atol de elote enjoyed with a tamal de elote will make you want for nothing, but it was El Metapaneco's pupusas that stole the show. Here, in glorious Wilmington, is what you're after: perfectly griddled stuffed cakes, a curtido that possessed the right about of vinegary zing and salsas that make you want to cry-expertly balanced with a just-right viscosity. Great service was the icing on the cake and if you ever find yourself starved and adventurous then order El Migueleño, a sandwich so stuffed with ingredients you'll wonder if anything is left in the kitchen for anyone else to enjoy.
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Chil Tepe: 5631 Atlantic Avenue, Long Beach; (562) 728-8713.
Pupuseria Salvadorena: 1336 Willow Street, Long Beach; (562) 426-6004.
El Metapaneco: 1352 N. Avalon Boulevard, Wilmington; (310) 522-9648.
Matt Armendariz writes at mattbites.