CUISINE: Central American
WHEN: Lunch and dinner Thursday through Tuesday
WHERE: 2300 Belle Chasse Hwy., Gretna, 368-5724
RESERVATIONS: Not necessary
If you've ever eaten a pupusa, chances are you're smitten by the straightforward, steamy corn pockets of meat, cheese and sometimes beans served as street food in El Salvador and around Central America. If you've ever eaten a pupusa around New Orleans, chances are you've been to Pupuseria Divino Corazon. It evolved from a fruit stand to a darling cafe over the past 12 years in an area of Gretna better known for the salty prunes, green papayas and fish sauces of the more prevalent Vietnamese cuisine. And if you've ever been to this pupuseria, chances are you're enamored with its 13 plastic-draped tables, its bright beach towel hangings, its framed tapestry of a rosy-lipped Jesus with glowing Sacred Heart and the motherly Latina workforce in matching maroon T-shirts that prepares the pupusas to order.
But unless you've ever spoken with siblings Carmen Gomez and Francisco Salmeron, you probably didn't know that their late El Salvadoran father, Osminto, repaired tires on the side to supplement the restaurant's income in its beginnings, when toilets still were outdoors, or that their mother Gloria credits "the power of God" for the pupuseria's success. There does seem to be something spiritually correct in the combination of griddle-toasted corn dough combined with curtido, the customary pickled cabbage salad served with pupusas.
Years ago, an El Salvadoran friend introduced me to the simple puffed tortilla purses, scattering mounds of cabbage on top before folding them like fat tacos. The plain pork pupusas in Gretna conjured up this memory, although I prefer the ones filled with green onion and an oily, salty white cheese. Divino Corazon's cabbage -- often topped with their soupy, smoky, red salsa -- is saturated with so much irresistible tang that they could package it.
But then they would have to list its ingredients, and the Salmeron's don't do that sort of thing. A local television food show called recently to book the pupuseria, but they refused rather than divulge a single recipe. Carmen's voice lowers like she's addressing something sacred when she refers to the recipes, although she did admit that they don't use any lard. (A Frenchman might as well have told me he doesn't use butter in his croissants.) Their refried pinto beans are too rich and cakey, the pupusa dough too substantial and dense, and the pastel de carne (meat pie) and pastel de pina (pineapple cookie) crusts leave this delicious fatty film on the roof of the mouth like I thought only lard -- or maybe peanut butter -- could achieve.
These sublime doughs and crusts often compensate for unworthy fillings. Pupusas are modest snacks and aren't meant to be bursting with stuffings, but the pork version sometimes contained only a smear of meat; the steak in the weekend's thick corn tortilla tacos was sour, and the ground beef in the meat pies tasted not unlike the tacos my mother served us in the 1970s (not bad but certainly American). In fact, Divino Corazon's hard-shell tacos were identical to hers, shredded lettuce and cheddar cheese included. Most of the Mexican-style selections were equally disappointing, like the standard enchiladas and the tostadas with sour cream.
The kitchen really comes through on the menu's amazingly inexpensive a la carte "especialidades Centroamericanas" (Central American specialties). The layered yuca con chicharron is a bowl of waxy boiled yuca and amazing cubes of feather-light pork cracklin' with cabbage and salsa; swabbed through a sweet sour cream sauce, the tamal de elote of moist, corn-studded masa is the best take on creamed corn I've tasted, and I now long for the platanos fritos, or fried plantains, served with more of the cream sauce and sticky refried beans. Then there is the herbaceous banana leaf-wrapped tamal de gallina of chicken and green olives, the shrimp-packed ramekins of ceviche de cameron and the tightly rolled chicken tacos fritos. Two delicious egg-shaped rellenos (plantain dumplings) -- stuffed either with oozing sweetened black beans or a gelatinous sweet milk custard -- kept me from trying any of the other desserts.
Similarly, cold drinks on the back page kept me from ordering the jars of margaritas and sangria: the gigantic frosty milkshakes of tropical guanabana, passion fruit and custardy zapote, the flecks of cantaloupe sucked through a straw with pale orange sugar water and an unusual horchata made with milk, sesame seeds, rice and cinnamon. A stinky, sour tamarindo drink was a little too authentic for one of my companions, so he did opt for Coors in a jar.
So did a table of cowboys in the corner who looked quite at home with big bowls of Sunday's beef tripe soup special. For newcomers, it's easy to miss the miniscule sign's puckering cowgirl along the gray highway. I learned about the place when a chef confessed to me that she orders the pupusas en masse and freezes them for late-night snacking. Another cottage industry for the ladies of Divino Corazon? Nope. For the time being, real-life simplicities like toasted corn tortillas, cakey pinto beans and a family full of secret recipes and faith power the heart of this pupuseria.