Sweet, gooey, piping-hot fried plantains are an ideal breakfast food. Especially the way they serve them in Central American restaurants: with warm, creamy refried beans and cold sour cream on the side for dipping. My kids and I used to order the plátanos fritos for breakfast all the time at Super La Mexicana on Stella Link when we lived in that neighborhood.
Last month, Pollo Campero, the Central American fried chicken chain, wrote to me announcing they were introducing breakfast items at their 5616 Bellaire Boulevard location. I wondered if that meant I could now get fried plantains for breakfast at a fast-food restaurant.
A few mornings later, I was in their drive-thru lane looking over the breakfast offerings. I ordered half the items on the menu -- after all, there were two hungry people back home waiting for me.
We opened the bags and divided up a breakfast biscuit that had eggs, sausage and chipotle sauce on it. It was much better than the breakfast biscuits at other fast-food chains, but still no big thrill. We also split a burrito stuffed with chorizo and eggs, which was okay, too.
But we all fought over the Latino breakfast platter. The oversize Styrofoam container was full of scrambled eggs, sausage (you can also choose bacon), three tortillas, beans, sour cream and, yes, fried plantains. I also got another order of fried plantains on the side for good measure. They were only 75 cents.
For a drive-thru breakfast, it was pretty damn good. Not quite up to the level of the awesome egg tacos and fried plantains at El Rey on Washington Avenue, but close.
I went back to Pollo Campero's drive-thru on a subsequent visit and ordered the other half of the menu, which was basically chicken on a biscuit, another burrito, an omelette and some pancakes with syrup. None was terribly impressive.
On my way home, I noticed that the new Central American restaurant called Sabor!, which is located in a shopping center close to Pollo Campero, had also started serving breakfast.
My first Sabor! breakfast was actually at one in the afternoon. In a gracious show of civility, the restaurant serves six of its top breakfast items all day. My brunchmate and I tried two of them.
I got the house specialty called huevos en tuza, two eggs delicately steam-poached on a corn husk with plantains, refried beans, sour cream, Salvadoran cheese and fresh corn tortillas. The greaseless eggs retained a little of the corn husk flavor, and the Central American tortillas, which are patted out by hand rather than flattened in a press, were thick, warm and wonderfully chewy.
Sabor! offers an array of fresh-squeezed juices made from exotic Central American fruits. They'll bring you a sampler of all six if you ask. Cashew fruit juice turned out to be my favorite. I also got a Salvadoran coffee, which is brewed with cinnamon.
My brunchmate had an egg dish called Puerto La Unión, which features two eggs over easy on a fried tortilla with the same sides of plantains, beans, sour cream and Salvadoran cheese. If you like a little grease, this one's even better than the steamed eggs on corn husks.
On another visit, I tried the huevos estilo salvadoreño, eggs scrambled with tomatoes, onions and green peppers, also served with the same sides. Unfortunately, the vegetables shed a lot of moisture in the cooking process. The result was a loose, crumbly-textured scramble, rather than the creamy, unbroken curds I prefer.
Waffles with peaches, honey and syrup turned out to be previously frozen toaster waffles with what looked like the topping for an ice cream sundae. They were awful.
There are also corn, pork and chicken tamales available for breakfast, and these are a treat. Central American-style tamales are fatter and juicier than the Tex-Mex variety. They come wrapped in a banana leaf and a piece of aluminum foil. I sampled the chicken and pork. Both had a lot of meat along with boiled potato cubes and garbanzo beans inside a creamy layer of masa (corn dough).
The menu also offered pupusas with loroco, which I couldn't resist trying. A pupusa is like a Salvadoran grilled-cheese sandwich made from two fresh tortillas with a mozzarella filling. Loroco is an aromatic flowering plant that's much beloved by Salvadorans and Nicaraguans. It grows wild in Central America but is available only in its frozen form in the United States.
A few years ago, I tried to identify the flavor of loroco at a pupusería on Bissonnet (see "Loco for Loroco," August 17, 2000). The best I could do: Tastes like chard, smells like chocolate. I also noted that it was on the list of foods under consideration by the USDA's Commodity and Biological Risk Analysis team, the group that considers fresh agricultural products for import into the States. As it turns out, a study conducted since then determined that imported fresh loroco leaves were a danger because they harbor the Diabrotica adelpha beetle.
If I didn't know better, I would swear the loroco in the pupusas at Sabor! was the first fresh, unfrozen loroco I've ever encountered. It still tasted like spinach, or some sort of greens. And it still had a chocolate aroma. But the difference was in the texture -- these tiny loroco buds felt like asparagus tips between my teeth. They looked bright green and fresh, but surely I'm mistaken.
Not only was the loroco better than usual, so were the pupusas. The masa they were made from tasted lighter, and the pupusas seemed more supple than usual. If you've never had pupusas before, this is a great place to try them.
Sabor! is an attempt to take Salvadoran food upscale by the same people who own the El Pupusatón pupuserías in Houston. Sabor!'s polished granite tables, cafe-au-lait tile floors and cheerful, butter-yellow walls make a wonderful first impression. The restaurant is comfortable, charming and clean. But while the pupusas and the breakfasts with fried bananas are outstanding, a visit at dinnertime wasn't as satisfying.
The entrées I sampled were pretty boring. Part of the problem is that the food is designed to appeal to a Central American clientele. Central Americans don't eat spicy food and generally don't use many sauces. They also prefer well-done meat. Fine for breakfast foods, but not what I crave for dinner.
Lomo de res, which was billed as an eight-ounce rib eye, was a flattened piece of overcooked beef served with tasteless parboiled rice and an undressed salad. If that's the best cut of meat on the menu, I shudder to think of what the fajita or the steak with onions tastes like.
Sopa de gallina india is a bland chicken vegetable soup with a dried-out, fried chicken leg quarter on the side. If you crumble the chicken meat into the soup, it's passable.
The house specialty, crema de mariscos a la francesa, is a much better choice of soups. The lunch version I sampled contained shrimp, fish, green mussels and crab in a rich seafood broth spiked with crema, the Central American version of sour cream. The broth was so rich, I thought it contained coconut milk, until the waitress told me the ingredients. According to the menu, the dinner version of the dish comes in a hollowed-out round of french bread. Of course, predictably enough, the one entrée I loved wasn't really Salvadoran food. It was the Salvadoran version of French food.
You probably won't miss much if you pass over Sabor! when you're looking for a place for dinner. But the restaurant is definitely worth a visit if you're in search of a luxurious late breakfast with bananas, or a stunning pupusa-with-loroco lunch.
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