East Side Vacation
See how the pupusas are made at El Petate in our slideshow.
The Salvadoran restaurant in a little blue house with a broad front porch, facing Canal Street, has the sort of languidly lazy look to it that would inspire a postprandial nap, were there petates — mats woven out of palm fronds — on the shaded front porch, or hammocks hanging from the trees outside in the gravel parking lot.
El Petate has this almost vacation-like feel down, without even seeming to try. Part of it is the food — all deeply authentic Salvadoran dishes, from the more accessible mainstays like pupusas down to more off-the-beaten-path dishes like chilate y nuegados. And part of it is the cheerful decor, all giant maps and vivid color photos of jungles, which almost serves as a perfunctory travel guide to El Salvador itself.
For someone like me, who isn't as familiar with Salvadoran cuisine as, say, Indian or Vietnamese, every trip to El Petate is an adventure. I don't have a lot of money to travel, never have; visits to restaurants like these have long served as my version of a cheap vacation, made all the better by the fact that I can revisit my vacation destination week after week when I find myself craving the thick, nutty flavor of Salvadoran horchata or the spicy crunch of El Petate's homemade carrot-and-cabbage curtido, which I pile on top of each steaming-hot pupusa.
It's the pupusas that first drew me here, in fact. I'm an admitted sucker for the all-you-can-eat pupusa buffets of southwest Houston. (Hey, better that than a Golden Corral.) But earlier this year, I put out a call for our readers' favorite East End restaurants, to help me explore the eastern stretches of our city. One commenter, Oramosvt, quietly responded: "El Petate, best pupusas in Houston." The comment got two "likes." That was good enough for me.
I finally made it out to El Petate a few weeks ago and was indeed confronted with some of the better pupusas I've had in Houston. The thick corn masa discs only come with three choices of fillings here — queso, chicharrón (pork skin) or revueltos (a mixture of beef, beans and cheese); no loroco (squash blossom) here, sadly — but they're made to order, hot and thick and tinged with a lovely char around the edges.
The simple queso pupusas are my favorite, filled with that rough, salty Salvadoran cheese that only barely melts despite the pupusa's turn across a screaming hot griddle. The cheese is an ideal offset to the toothsome chew of the soft masa, all of it brought together with a few spoonfuls from the giant glass jar of curtido that's delivered to your table.
The family-style glass jars are also brought out with a plastic-wrapped spoon (please don't use your own utensils; other people have to eat out of that curtido jar, too) that you'll use to heft out scoops of cabbage and carrots, shredded and immersed in a slightly spicy vinegar base that brings a bright and welcome crunch to the soft pupusas.
I like to get the pupusas on one of El Petate's clever combo platters; there are four to choose from, each priced at $8. Plato No. 1 comes with your choice of Salvadoran tamale, made with satiny masa and wrapped in a banana leaf, as well as two pupusas of your choosing and a plate of fried plantains, dark brown refried beans and tangy white crema. Plato No. 4 replaces the fried plantains with something more appropriate for dessert (which is why it's my favorite plate): empanadas.
Salvadoran empanadas are entirely different from the Mexican pumpkin-filled pastries we pick up at El Bolillo or the Argentinean beef-stuffed pockets from Manena's. Salvadoran empanadas are essentially sugar-encrusted plantains filled to bursting with sweet cream, served warm and almost indecently gooey. And they make one of the finest and most unexpected desserts in town.
Salvadoran cuisine uses its native ingredients like plantains and yuca to great effect, showcasing them in far more interesting applications than just fried or sliced into chips. One of those applications is the chilate y nuegados mentioned above.
I know now that chilate is not my favorite thing in the world. In fact, I'd rather have the nuegados on their own and forgo the milky bowl of chilate that comes with them. But it's tradition to eat the two together — and El Petate is the place to do it. Nuegados are crispy, chewy fritters made from mashed yuca, which has an almost briny taste to it when made this way. The fritters themselves aren't sweet — they're entirely savory — but the dark, thick, molasses-like syrup served on top of them is. It reminds me, in a way, of Salvadoran-style French toast. And if the nuegados are French toast, chilate is the coffee you drink alongside it.
Chilate is made from toasted corn, ginger and peppercorns, a watery mixture that's unappealing on its own merits but tasty when drunk or spooned up alongside the savory-sweet nuegado fritters. I prefer the other accompaniment that comes with the nuegados, however: candied plantains in a slightly lighter version of the nuegado syrup.
You can order this appetizer for breakfast, lunch or dinner, although I imagine it's most appealing in the early morning. And at El Petate, you can also order breakfast at any time of day — you'll just pay $1 more for it after noon.
Breakfasts here remind me a bit of those hearty meals at Honduras Maya in Bellaire, food from a country that shares the same stretch of land in Central America as El Salvador, but with two different oceans along their coastlines. Both Honduran and Salvadoran breakfasts come with refried beans so dark as to be nearly black, tart spoonfuls of starkly white crema and fat, sweet plantains alongside eggs (scrambled or fried, your choice). But perhaps in keeping with its location in a heavily Mexican part of town and Houston's general love affair with Mexican breakfast (you know it's true), El Petate also offers dishes like huevos rancheros and huevos con chorizo in the mornings as well.
And El Petate has more to offer than just pupusas and breakfast: Meat lovers will want to indulge in one of my favorite dishes here, salpicón de res. Found throughout Central America, salpicón is a mess of shredded beef and vegetables — the vegetables themselves changing from region to region.
Here at El Petate, the vegetables are raw white onion, radish and cilantro, all of which combine with the soft shreds of salty meat to pop like bright fireworks in the background. As with Mexican salpicón, the beef is meant for tucking inside of tacos or tortillas. Instead of a thin flour or corn tortilla, however, you'll get two of the huge Salvadoran suckers: fat rounds of corn masa that are as thick as ten corn tortillas stacked together. Heap the salpicón inside, top it with cool crema and a squeeze of lime, and you'll have a masterpiece of a meal for only $7.25 (it also comes with plenty of fried plantains and Salvadoran-style dirty rice).
And although the breakfasts are good, it's the evenings at El Petate that are more of a draw — not only because of the pupusas and salpicón, but because of the sense of community found during a busy night in the small restaurant. The tables are mostly laden with dishes served family-style. Everyone watches novelas on the TV that's mounted above the jukebox, while simultaneously listening to the music from the jukebox itself. Rowdier tables spill out onto the patio with their Coronas in hand. Everyone's happy. And everyone orders pupusas.
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