Now that Vietnamese pho is old hat, Korean bibimbap is an increasingly common lunchtime option, and Colombian arepas—thanks in no small part to Barroco Grill—have invaded downtown Cleveland, adventurous diners might be wondering: What's the next ethnic food fad primed for the limelight? If I have a vote in the matter, I'd make the case for pupusas. In addition to being gosh-darn fun to say—poo-POO-suh—these Salvadoran mainstays are prime foodie fodder, bound to leap from the shadows of obscurity into the warm glow of a filtered Instagram photo.
Picture an inch-thick, griddle-fried corn pancake filled with melted cheese and beans and you get a good idea of what makes a pupusa so damn good. Add to that they come cheap—like $1.50 to $2 a pop—and you start to see the makings of the "next great thing in food." In fact, I'm surprised nobody's launched a local pupusa food truck yet. Patty Wagon, anyone?
Two years ago I wrote about a pair of westside pupuserias, La Casa Tazumal and Pupuseria La Bendicion, and I've been wondering when another operator would join the fiesta. That finally happened last year, when Wilfrido Cubas and his sister opened El Arepazo y Pupuseria in Fairview Park. Like its compadres, the restaurant is a modest joint run by a skeleton crew of family members. But unlike the other two—and as evidenced by its moniker—this one has a dual identity in that it offers both Colombian and Salvadoran specialties.
One side of the menu ticks off Colombian dishes like arepas, empanadas and the classic Bandeja Paisa, an appetite slaying platter loaded down with rice, beans, plantains, meaty pork skin, sausage, steak, avocado, arepa and an egg! On the flipside of the menu are Salvadoran items like potato-stuffed pastries, fried yuca, pupusas, and fried whole fish.
While both arepas and pupusas are corn-based pancakes stuffed with various ingredients, the similarities end there. Arepas are stiffer, making them ideal for slicing open like a bun after they're heated to accept the filling. The result is a sandwich-like affair that (with a little dexterity) can be eaten out of hand. Pupusas, which are more pliable and delicate, are filled before they're cooked, with the ingredients fully encased within the dough. They're eaten with a knife and fork.
Cubas sticks to the classic pupusa fillings of cheese, cheese and refried beans, pork, cheese and beans, and loroco, a Salvadoran green vegetable ($1.99 each). The cheese is a mild, melty cheese that oozes out of fissures in the dough onto the hot griddle, where it crisps up into the best thing ever. Pupusas are always served with curtido, a vinegary cabbage slaw, and salsa roja, a thin, plain tomato sauce. The crunch and tangy acid from the accompaniments are the perfect foil for the cheesy, corny cakes below.
Cubas estimates that a full 80 percent of his clientele is non-Latino, a discovery that is at once surprising and understandable. And most, he says, come for the pupusas.
"The pupusas are becoming very popular," he says. "It's something new for people, but once they try it, they like it."
El Arepazo's arepas are appropriately crisp and corny, overstuffed with various fillings. The chorizo ($8.99) is excellent, with the spicy sausage mixed with onions, green peppers and little bits of cheese. They are served with fries and a trio of sauces that include mustard, garlic and chipotle.
It's wise to tack on a few empanadas ($2.25), crispy fried pastries filled with cheese, pork or beef. The restaurant also sells pastels de papa ($1.99), a Salvadoran snack that is similar to an empanada but employs a corn dough that's stuffed with cooked potato. Salvadoran tamales are steamed in a banana leaf and have a more custard-like texture than the fluffier Mexican variety. El Arepazo sells just a chicken-stuffed ($2.99) version.
El Arepazo has no booze, but does sell the full line of Jarritos sodas ($1.99) as well as homemade tamarindo and horchato ($2.25).
All three pupuserias in town are worth checking out for comparison's sake, but if pressed on the issue, I'd put Pupuseria La Bendicion on the top of the list. The quick-casual, largely take-out spot in a scrappy strip mall better suits the food than a more formal sit-down restaurant. La Casa Tazumal, in contrast, is a welcoming little dining room that feels more like somebody's home than somebody's business.
And when the inevitable pupusa truck rolls into town, I'll be the first one in line.