When you ask for a $3.75 order of pupusas at La Cocinita Escondida, "the little hidden kitchen," the precepts of fast food and slow food meet at the griddle. Sometimes a cook reaches for a bag of masa harina, ground corn flour, and prepares the savory cakes from scratch before your eyes; other times you can hear the already-mixed dough slapping into shape between her palms like a hamburger patty. Either way, the pupusas are cooked to order -- but quickly so -- having been embedded with smudges of filling and then griddle-flipped until toasty spots freckle both sides.
Approaching the size of a CD, these pupusas achieve an impossible equilibrium. The dough is simultaneously airy and dense, moist and crackly; its remarkable blandness is totally exciting. An order of two makes a lovely light lunch -- a light lunch so sturdy it once held me over until a midnight snack. It almost doesn't matter what filling you choose, between the melting white cheese, the lard-flavored pork paste, the mashed pinto beans or some combination of the three. The dough is the point here -- the dough, that is, and its partnership with the pupusa's traditional sidekick, curtido. Cabbage and carrots shredded into angel hair and marinated nearly to sauerkraut, La Cocinita's curtido makes a sharp sensation, like a cocktail in the morning. The pupusas' mild pocket of corn flour grants the cool, wet, vinegary relish complete reign of your senses.
The pupusa is one of El Salvador's national snack foods, which doesn't prevent La Cocinita's Nicaraguan chef-owners from cooking them with authority. When they opened the restaurant last November, Ivolka Alvarez and her mother, Leonor Zamora, aimed to introduce Uptown New Orleans to the kind of full-service Central American restaurant that's scattered throughout the city's fringes. Mission accomplished. Splashed tomato-red outside and lemon-yellow inside, their little hidden kitchen brightens a block of Freret Street that previously had difficulty looking anything but gray. Some customers are clearly neighborhood fixtures -- people who probably hit Dunbar's for gumbo on Fridays and Eve's Market for dinner provisions. Others appear to have traveled for this food, perhaps from the city's fringes. Little old Latinas chattering in Spanish lunch here together, their lacy slips poking out from under proper dresses.
The dining room's few flourishes include mighty Lake Nicaragua painted onto two small canvases that are nailed to the wall. And the conditions, though friendly, can feel rural. At high noon, when the marginal air conditioning unit barely reaches the overheated laborers and panty-hosed women squeezed hip-to-haunch at the counter, the owners crank up the ceiling fans and throw open the doors, releasing the charred scent of grilling meats and the sounds of R&B oldies onto the street. Dress lightly, follow your nose and if they forget to switch on the dining room lights, as they often do, don't take it personally.
From pupusas to the raisin-sweet and sour tamarindo drinks, La Cocinita's food tastes like it was made today. This was true even on the afternoon when Alvarez's brother, usually a waiter, was left in charge of the cooking. For starters, flash-fried tortilla chips come with a piquant salsa whose tomato-chile-cilantro puree resembles Christmas confetti. The entree-size Caesar salad is a basic but well-executed toss of Romaine lettuce, croutons and a store-bought dressing that I would buy any day. House salads, built into the price of most entrees, sing with a sweet, creamy onion dressing that's made in house.
At $3.75, the Nicaraguan-style tacos are as thrilling a bargain as a pair of Diesel jeans accidentally priced for clearance. Rolled and deep-fried like flautas at a Mexican restaurant, these shredded beef tacos contain nuances of cinnamon and memories of mom's Sloppy Joe's. They share certain, soothing characteristics with horchata, Latin America's answer to Nestle Quik. La Cocinita's version of this slightly nutty, cinnamon and rice beverage tasted less sugary, and better, each time I tried it.
Entrees are pricier, though they quite literally repay you in full. The carne asada plate delivers a fabulous amount of sirloin steak that's saturated with a tart and salty marinade and marked by the grill until just past pink. It's a lusty dish, complete with gallo pinto (heavily seasoned rice mixed with pinto beans) and molten fried plantains. Marinated and grilled pork chops and chicken breasts embody similar dimensions of tart and salty -- like the non-alcoholic features of a margarita. Both are satisfying without being exactly succulent, served with fluffed orange rice and saucy pinto beans.
I've stopped by La Cocinita on three different Saturdays for the soups that, according to the menu, are served on weekends. None were ever available. Alvarez herself told me that on Saturdays she likes to prepare Nicaraguan specialties such mondongo and chanchos fritos, but none of those surfaced during my Saturday visits either. Asi es la vida. Eating well is not the problem -- I'll settle for the carne asada any day of the week. But considering how these women have mastered El Salvador's favorite snack food, I'm dying to taste more of their home turf capabilities.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Family affair: Leonor Zamora (second from left) and her sons Gregorio Soto, Walter Alvarez and Ubran Alvarez make LA COCINITA ESCONDIDA a homey Latin American dining experience.