At This Salvadoran Spot, Let the P's Guide You: Plantains, Pupusas, Yes

Sopa de pato, no.

When I go back to Mi Chalateca, a Salvadoran restaurant on Aurora and 97th Avenue, it won't be for the pupusas. It won't be for the grilled meats or the butter-drenched cheese bread, no matter how good they may be. I'm returning for the plantains. Ripe and fat, the golden fruit are fried in oil so slowly that their caramelizing sugars never burn. Fried so slowly that the insides transform from inedibly solid into a thick, tangy custard. How much oil soaks into the plantains as they fry? I refuse to contemplate. I'll also leave it to the Salvadoran Consulate to explain why the plantains are served with one puddle of saucy, salty refried beans and another puddle of crema—too loose to be sour cream and too mild to be yogurt. The Aurora Mi Chalateca, three months old, is the second branch of a Federal Way restaurant, owned by Jorge Castellanos and his family, that serves inexpensive, sustaining Salvadoran food: a good number of solid dishes, a couple of scary ones, and a few so stellar that they justify everything else in the place. The restaurant is a step up from most of the Salvadoran restaurants I've eaten at over the years, a disproportionate number of which have lettered their signs in duct tape. The Castellanoses took over an old bargain-Chinese restaurant and left much of its decor intact. Motel 6 burgundy carpet clashes with auburn booths that look like they were converted from 1970s La-Z-Boy loungers, which in turn clash with the pale spearmint walls and fluorescent wintergreen trim. Round tables in the back room are equipped with lazy Susans for big families. Despite the fact that most of the diners who have discovered Mi Chalateca already are coming for a taste of home, the restaurant reaches out to outsiders by illustrating its full-size, laminated menu with photos of its snacks, big bowls of soups and grilled meats, and desserts. But there's no gussying up a pupusa. Of course, you don't order a pupusa, just as you'd never think of buying a can of Bud Light. You order pupusas by the platter, and they always arrive looking naked and defeated: round, stuffed corn cakes, as big around as a grapefruit and as thick as a Harlequin romance, their cheesy stuffing oozing out of the fissures and blistering on the griddle. Bite into a naked pupusa, and it tastes doughy and bland, not the sort of thing you'd expect of a country's national dish. But pupusas aren't meant to be eaten alone. They're meant to be topped with a cabbage slaw, called curtido, and a runny tomato salsa that comes in a squeeze bottle (Mi Chalateca serves a hot and a mild version). Fixed up with some crunch and snap, a pupusa is about as exciting as a slice of cheese pizza—which is why I always eat as many as I can before my stomach can pass the "stop" command up to my brain. I found Mi Chalateca's pupusas a little thin, physically speaking, and their oregano-speckled curtido tasted a little too freshly mixed—I like it when the cabbage breaks down in the vinegar and starts to give off more of a sauerkraut funk. But the fillings were good, especially the shredded pork, cheese, and refried beans in the pupusas revueltas and the cheese and shredded zucchini. At the other end of the price range is Mi Chalateca's pièce de résistance: the molcajete. The entrée is named after its serving dish, a four-legged stone mortar that the cooks have heated up in the oven. Its centerpiece: leaves of grilled steak, pressed flat and charred hard, but marinated for maximum flavor and sliced so that the meat comes apart easily. Around the steak are arranged fresh avocado, grilled green onions, a couple of paddles of nopal cactus (which tastes like the juxtaposition of green beans and okra), and a garlicky, salty, thick dried-chile puree. The two-person molcajete also comes with corn-flecked rice, refried beans, and palm-sized, nubbly tortillas, obviously patted out by hand instead of pressed. They have to be eaten quickly, because their sweet, soft-centered texture vulcanizes within minutes. Salvadoran food isn't as thrillingly seasoned as most Mexican fare, with its hundreds of chiles and its complex marinades and salsas. Everything runs simple and calorie-dense—starting with snacks such as pastelitos (meat-stuffed, fried corn turnovers) and starchy, deep-fried yuca root paired with chunks of equally crunchy pork; and ending with sugar-dusted plantain fritters stuffed with milk (Mi Chalateca's might have been good had the oil in the fryer been changed more recently). Most of the other entrées on the restaurant's menu are variations on meat and rice and beans: Chicken encebollado (stewed chicken smothered in braised onions), for example, or grilled slices of chicken, rubbed with enough achiote paste to tint the meat lemon-yellow. And then there were a couple of only-in-El Salvador dishes that defeated me. One of the desserts, chilate con nuegados, is a plate of delicious yuca fritters saturated with black honey syrup, which are supposed to be eaten with a sour white gruel seasoned only with whole allspice berries. It's the very definition of a buzz kill. Then there's the sopa de pato. I visited Mi Chalateca on the weekend specifically for this beef-foot soup, which I've relished at other Central American restaurants for its velvety, gelatin-enriched broth. Once I'd added all the limes that came with the bowl, the broth was as good as ever—and, thanks to the gelatin, literally lip-smacking—but all the vegetables inside were too raw to eat, and when I swirled my spoon through the bits and bobs of tripe lurking underneath the surface, I dredged up a four-inch chunk of something with patches of black cow stubble on it. Which is how I sucked up an entire glass of ensalada—a bubble-gum-flavored drink with shredded apple and mango floating around the bottom—in mere seconds. Though I'll probably not attempt the soup again at Mi Chalateca, I will go back for the quesadilla. Not the cheese-loaded flour tortilla Mexican-American restaurants serve, but a sweet, cheesy cornbread that comes freshly baked or microwaved, wrapped in plastic to trap all the melted butter the bread aches to exude. Like the plantains, the quesadilla is a destination in itself.

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