Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Pupusería San Sivar - Costa Mesa, CA

Pupusas are not the infantbearing slings worn by native American women. No, pupusas are to El Salvador what quesadillas are to the United States. None of the very divergent things called quesadillas found across the regions of Mexico are anything like the bland grilled-cheese-on-a-flavorless-flour-tortilla as we know it in the US. But that's another story for another time.

We're talking about pupusas: fresh masa dough and savory fillings like cheese, chorizo, meat and vegetables handpatted into a flat round disc about 8 inches in diameter, then griddled until crisp. Make the masa too thin, and the fillings can leak. Make the masa too thick, and it's as clodgy and heavy as day old oatmeal.

That baby bear, just right balance point tips precipitously close on the too-thin side of the equation, and you'll find it at Pupusería San Sivar, a wee, modest restaurant in an unassuming Costa Mesa strip mall. Proudly displayed on the door and wall sits their justly deserved Best Eats of OC 2005 award from the paper I occasionally write for, the OC Weekly.

Seven classic flavors are offered. Can't go wrong with revueltas con queso, frijol y chicharron: a mixed cheese, bean and pork filling. I heavily favor the ones here with chicharron. Pollo is a mildly seasoned shredded chicken meat, without cheese, which is only ok in my book. I'm partial to the squash with cheese, called calabazitas. Loroco is a pod-like vegetable whose shreds are sauteed and mixed with cheese. The cheese lets off an agreeable slick of oil, in the way a good New York pizza slice might ooze a little orange grease. Don't let it harsh your mellow.

Pupusas de arroz, made of rice flour, cost 20 cents more than corn and are an unusual variation on the theme. The rice dough tastes plainer than the corn version, but its texture is phenomenally better in my opinion. Something about the gels and starches in rice give it the ability to crisp into a toasty, crunchy, browned crust.

Rice eating people the world over fight for the crisp brownies at the bottom of the rice cooker. Persians invert this browned crust in the dish called tadig. Japanese grill rice balls into yaki onigiri, and Italians fry rice balls into arancini. Koreans use a superheated stone pot to serve the rice dish called dolsot bibimbap, which continually toasts your rice while you eat it. Rice's ability to take on a browned crust makes its way to El Salvador in their most popular dish.

Salvadoran food doesn't mandate chili heat like so many Mexican dishes, so the spicy variation of curtido, the requisite side dish of cabbage slaw is surprising, and good. Sweet is balanced with vinegar which has been infused with red chili flakes.

San Sivar makes their own horchata salvadorena in house. They flavor this version of the rice drink with ground sesame, cacao bean, pepitas, morro seed and cinnamon. Very unlike Mexican horchata, and definitely not from the concentrate that most restaurants use.

One last bit of advice. Eat pupusas as soon as they hit the table. The half life on these things is about 8 minutes, after which the crisp goes soggy, the starches in the dough stiffen, and the whole thing skids downhill fast and faceplants like your first time on a snowboard. Take out is a last resort, m'kay?

Pupusería San Sivar
1940 Harbor Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA


Anonymous Kirk said...

Oh-oh Prof - Elmo's going to have a pupupsa fit! I did find that you can heat up a pupusa in a toaster oven (w/o curtido) if you need to, though the pupusa will start getting stale pretty quickly! Found out 'cause I always order too many pupusas, and forget how filling they can be.
Don't forget the Chinese Rice crust dishes!

9/22/2005 08:33:00 AM  
Blogger elmomonster said...

Oh man! Oh man! Oh man! How serendipitous! I was going to go today per your rec on Chowhound. That was like you giving us a treasure map...this post is you giving us what diamonds to pick out first when we found the treasure chest!

Thanks! I'm taking my camera!

9/22/2005 08:54:00 AM  
Blogger Professor Salt said...

Hey elmo,

That's only just the beginning of the treasures. I actually think the chicken pupusa is only eh. The ones with pork (called chicharron here) are actually my favorite.

Give me a heads up when you get your photos up, and we can post a tandem post on the CH board.

9/22/2005 01:29:00 PM  
Blogger elmomonster said...


My pupusa post and pics are up. Awesome place. Thanks for the recommendation!

9/26/2005 10:13:00 PM  
Blogger elmomonster said...

Don't know why my last post only shows up in the comment screen, but I just wanted to let you know that I've put up my pics and review of San Sivar.

9/27/2005 02:28:00 PM  
Blogger Professor Salt said...

Hey, great post on your blog! I'm fiddling around with my Blogger software right now, that's why your comments posted funky.

9/27/2005 09:29:00 PM  

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