La Macarena Pupuseria opened in October just shy of the Williams Boulevard finish line -- past the Jazzercise studio and the Velvet Turtle Lounge, past the insurrection of buffet restaurants and the huddle of one-room businesses. Formerly a hot wings joint, the diminutive space resembles the office of a gas station in the pre-quick-stop era: Windows expose every square inch within; the checkered flooring is red and dust-colored.
But the resemblance ceases where tiles meet walls, which are soaked in seascape blue, sunny yellow and earthy orange. A Madonna crying alligator tears and bold Cubist paintings hang on the walls, and often the Gypsy Kings contribute their spirit through a portable stereo. White linens and sheets of clear plastic cover the few tables, and the sturdy, high-backed wooden chairs can seat 25.
Inevitably Manuel (Manny) Ochoa Galvez waits in one of them. Manny also works as an international tour guide, a profession that prepped him for host shifts at La Macarena, where he guides guests through El Salvador by serving them the fabulous Salvadoran home cooking of his mother, Isbela Galvez. He promotes her menu like it's the Sistine Chapel ceiling; the sizable Latino clientele, including a priest who loosened his collar to eat one lunchtime, also attests to the food's merits.
It's not customary to request the chef's tasting menu at a pocket-size Salvadoran restaurant, but when a friend granted Manny full reign to feed four of us, the host and his mother colluded to present one of the most satisfying, well-paced and all-around balanced five-course meals I've experienced. He began by pouring smuggled wine into real glasses (beverages usually come in Styrofoam). "We're like Lola's," he says, referring to the wine-friendly BYOB Spanish eatery in Bayou St. John.
Soft, griddle-browned pupusas (the handmade Hot Pocket of Central America) comprised the first course, all filled with a salty, ripe mixture of white Salvadoran cheeses. This was the first pupusa I'd ever encountered whose filling matched its toasty corn dough in outstanding, pronounced flavor; green bits of fragrant loroco, a native Salvadoran flower, flecked the melted cheeses. As the flat, approximately circular pockets were too pliable to lift, Manny suggested we peel back the top layer of corn dough and compound the filling's cheesy richness by applying a varnish of soupy, lard-flavored refried black beans. A crunchy, marinated cabbage slaw powerfully seasoned with dried oregano counter-attacked with pointed coolness.
Next came an exciting rendition of yuca con chicharron, a salad of sorts in which the bland starchiness of boiled yuca (a white root vegetable) coupled with the greasy animal funk of chicharron (cracklin') achieves an unexpected lightness when dressed with cold cabbage slaw and piquant pico de gallo. Isbela instead deep-fries the yuca, a process that seems to work like fabric softener by leeching the vegetable's extreme starchiness and rendering it downy as a baked potato. Scattered over the top, her chicharron is a cross between croutons and bacon bits, chipped and achingly crunchy.
Just as we poured mango-habanero sauce over the last fried yuca logs, Manny delivered a traditional San Salvadoran sandwich (pan con chumpe) made with chewy French bread, mustard, radish and knuckles of moist meat pulled from a whole roasted turkey. "In El Salvador, we never eat this before dinner," he explained. "The idea is that the turkey roasts all day." Seventeen spices involved in the roasting impart a complex yet soft-spoken flavor akin to yellow curry. It's not easy to split such a sandwich between four people, but it is recommended.
Half my party disregarded the iceberg salads that preceded the final savory course, a Spanish-inspired dish that Isbela learned to cook from her mother. Langostinos al ajillo are head-on prawns sequined in minced garlic and herbs and served over brilliant saffron rice steeped in shellfish flavor. Manny brought a bowl of lemons and again instructed us on technique: "Squeeze the lemons fervently, let [the juice] soak down, and then suck on the shrimp! Make a mess -- there will be finger bowls coming." It was perfect, if unnecessary, advice. Sucking and mess-making are second nature when shrimp are this snappy and luscious.
The best host wants his guests to leave the table nimble and refreshed, not bloated and powerless, which is why he served fresh tamarind and blackberry (mora) juices for dessert. One glass probably contains more sugar than a wand of Roman Candy, and yet both had a cleansing, citrusy edge. The milky horchata is exceptional, too. Isbela's 88-year-old mother, an absentee business partner, shops the markets in San Salvador for cinnamon, cocoa, rice and cashews; she sifts, toasts and grinds them before posting her horchata powder to Kenner.
On top of imagination, fashioning a full-bred restaurant from a remote space sized for take-out chicken wings requires a leap of faith. The Galvezes additionally possess a remarkable understanding of the word "restaurant," which derives from the Latin "restaurare," meaning "to restore." You'll drop less than $20 each for the meal outlined above, including a budget bottle of wine and a good tip for the pampering. If you don't leave feeling restored in every sense, the next pupusa is on me.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Manny Ochoa Galvez serves the fabulous Salvadoran home cooking created by his mother, Isbela, at Kenner's LA MACARENA PUPUSERIA.