Having driven by, around, and through Koreatown for years now, something always caught my attention in this cultural melting pot. Pupusas, pupusas, pupuseria, pupusas, pupuseria, pupusas...words that marked storefronts on practically every block. I knew that pupusas were a type of filled corn disc from El Salvador, thanks to Jonathan Gold from the LA Weekly, but how could I have gone by so long with the word "pupusa" screaming in my face without having actually tried one? I guess sometimes things just slip by. Tonight, therefore, I was determined to pop my pupusa cherry.
As I was a pupusa virgin, I needed some sage advice, so I turned once again to my trusty friend Counter Intelligence (another kudos to Mr. Gold). He listed four Salvadoran places, three in the Koreatown vicinity and another in the USC area. I read all four descriptions, and because Jonathan Gold always has a way of making anything sound good, we took the easy way out and just chose the first one, Atlacatl, on Berendo St. in Koreatown. I loved the name, Atlacatl, because it's a crazy word and I couldn't pronounce it, and after many guesses and failed pronunciation attempts, it was more like, "Hey Isaac, wanna go to At-la...um, that Salvadoran place?" I guessed that the name has Indian origins, and I think I may be right because I did a little web-tective work and found out that Atlacatl was an indigenous chief in El Salvador who resisted the Spanish forces in 1525. But I still had no clue as to how to pronounce it.
Atlacatl is definitely fancier than your typical Salvadoran restaurant. There are no neon-painted words on the outside saying they have pupusas inside. It looks like a little house with a lawn and shrubbery and paved walkway leading to the front door covered by a green canopy. In fact, according to Mr. Gold, the space that Atlacatl sits in has seen wilder days as a go-go bar called the Beverly Gardens. And, though looking a little like a grandma's house, it's very pleasant on the inside as well--there are random paintings on every wall and plush wall-to-wall forest green carpeting. A nice place for my first time? We'll find out...
Their menu is pretty simple, broken up into three main parts: pupusas, antojitos (Salvadoran snacks) and entrees. We thought that it was best to try something from each section, so we ordered two pupusas, a plate of fried yuca con chicharrones, and a carne asada entree. I couldn't wait--was it going to be everything that I thought it would be? I prepared myself mentally, and then finally, it was time. The waitress brought out two small plates, each one with what looked like a puffy grilled corn tortilla. "This one is the revuelta," she said, pointing to the more plain looking pork and cheese filled disc, "and this one is the revuelta con loroco," pointing to the other disc with the olive green speck on top, this one filled with pork, cheese, and loroco, a Salvadoran flower bud. She also plopped a big jar of pickled cabbage slaw, or curtido, on the table. I heaped on a few spoonfuls of the curtido and squeezed a few squirts of the salsa roja, a mild tomato sauce, on my disc o' masa. I paused to take a few snapshots, unable to avoid a few giggles from the kids at the next table, and then dug in. The pupusa itself was a little on the bland side, with a drier outer corn masa shell and its creamy pork, cheese and loroco filling tasting somewhat like an enchilada filling. I was expecting to be able to taste the loroco more, but really couldn't. But the dry-creamy blandness was OK, because somehow, its mellowness was a good yin for the pungent yang of the spicy and sour curtido and the tart salsa roja. It took a few bites to get the hang of it, but near the end of my first pupusa, I was really into it!
Pupusa with a heaping mound of curtido
Jar o' curtido...great stuff!
The fried yuca con chicharrones were interesting as well. The deep fried hunks of tuber were a heftier, saltier version of sweet potato tempura, it's mild, fluffy, starchy white interior going surprisingly well with the dry, salty, almost jerky like chunks of fried pork next to them. And what made it even tastier? More curtido of course!
Yuca Con Chicharrones
The carne asada in our entree was different than the Mexican style carne asada that I'm used to eating in my tacos, etc. Rather than being a drier, grilled steak, Atlacatl's carne asada was more stew-like. The roasted meat was fork tender and bathed in a rich, brown sauce and served alongside some fluffy vegetable-specked white rice and some velvety refried black beans. In a separate basket, two hockey puck like corn tortillas, also much different than the flatter, wider corn tortillas I'm used to, but these fluffy discs were perfect for picking up a little bit of the delicious beef and sauce.
A Carne Asada like I've never seen before
So yeah, my first time was good. I don't have anything to compare it to, obviously, but it was good enough to keep me wanting more. I'll definitely be back to Atlacatl, but as the girls always say, "You gotta shop around," and there are plenty of other pupusa-fish in the sea, especially in our part of town. No doubt you'll hear about those experiences in the future.
301 N. Berendo St.
Los Angeles, CA 90004