Loco for Loroco
At a vacant lot at the corner of Hillcroft and Bissonnet a garage sale is in progress. I ask several people standing around the cash table which of the many pupuserias around here they would recommend.
"We're all Mexicans," the lady taking the money tells me. "Go down Bissonnet another mile or so, you'll find the Salvadorans."
I get back in my car and follow her instructions. About a mile down the road there is a car wash benefiting Principe de Paz church. I park my car and walk up to the car washers. "Anybody here from El Salvador?" I ask.
A guy named Eric Garcia comes forward. I ask him where the best pupusas in Houston might be found.
"Try El Venado," he says.
"Anybody else from El Salvador?" I ask in a loud voice, looking for a consensus. Maybe it's too loud. The laughter and chatter suddenly cease, and a tough-looking kid approaches me warily.
"Are you from the FBI?" he asks.
"No, I'm just trying to get somebody to recommend a place to eat pupusas," I say with a laugh. He laughs. Everybody relaxes and goes back to washing vehicles.
"You want to talk to Brenda," a woman says. "She's from El Salvador, and she loves pupusas."
"So where is Brenda now?" I ask. The woman checks with a few of the others.
"She went to get pupusas," she says. "At El Campero."
El Campero [6515 Bissonnet, (713)541-9131] is right next to the charity car wash on Bissonnet, and its forbidding exterior is not very cheery, let alone inviting. The cinder-block structure sits a little too close to the road, and there are burglar bars on all the windows. I look inside for Brenda, but she must have already left. So I sit and peruse the menu. The orange vinyl chairs and fake wood Formica tables are pleasant enough. The acoustic ceiling has seen better days. The place may look a little ominous from the outside, but the cook and waitress inside are the exact opposite. They are singing along to the jukebox and smiling at me like a long-lost friend. The waitress recommends the pupusa with cheese and loroco .
"¿Que es loroco?" I ask.
"Es una hojita del campo," she tells me. A little leaf from some kind of wild plant?
"¿Es una hierba?" I ask. The cook is leaning over the cash register not far away, and she wiggles into the conversation. No, it's not an herb exactly, she says in Spanish, but I should try it. Everybody from El Salvador loves the stuff. Okay, I'm sold. I order a pupusa with cheese and loroco ($1.50).
El Campero has some items stacked on store shelves, and I wander around while my pupusa is cooking. I find a bottle of pickled loroco, which seems to be a flowering plant whose buds look like capers, except the buds are still connected to the stems. There are also a bunch of tapes for sale, all Christian music in Spanish.
A pupusa is sort of like a grilled cheese sandwich made from two fresh tortillas with a filling in the middle. My pupusa with cheese and loroco is excellent. The masa here is very fresh. The loroco flavor is difficult to identify: Does it taste like a green? The pupusa is served with chopped cabbage and carrots and peppers that have been marinated in vinegar. This crunchy slaw called cortido de repollo (chopped cabbage) is the ubiquitous Salvadoran side; I don't think I've ever seen a pupusa served without it. I also try the tamale de gallina ($1.25), which is one of the best tamales I've had in years. It's a warm gelatinous pudding of corn masa stuffed with lots of chicken and wrapped in a banana leaf. This is what tamales used to taste like before the Great Lard Panic. I wash down my $2.75 lunch with a Tropical brand gengibre ($1.25), a Salvadoran ginger ale with a nice spicy bite.
As the cook croons along to the latest tune on the jukebox, I hear the word "Jesucristo," and suddenly the whole scene comes into focus. The posters on the walls are all religious, and so is the music. Even the cook's baseball cap says something inspirational. I have evidently chosen to eat lunch at the Jesus-freak pupuseria. If my Spanish were better, the whole religious theme probably would be a little more annoying. But in truth, I haven't even noticed it until I'm done eating. And the pupusa and tamale are awesome.
I ask the cook, Reina Quintinilla, who is also the owner, where else they make good pupusas around here.
"Everybody goes to Pupusadromo," she says in Spanish. "But that's just because they serve beer."
"You don't serve beer?" I ask innocently.
"No, we don't have beer. We're Christians," she says heatedly.
I stand there speechless. The idea that Christianity and beer are mutually exclusive tends to dumbfound persons of Irish ancestry.
If you ever need one of those blue and white Salvadoran flags to hang from your rearview mirror, or a poster of San Salvador at dawn, El Venado Taqueria and Pupuseria [9409 South Gessner, (713)270-8730] is the place to go. The booths by the front windows boast some stunning custom-crafted vinyl upholstery -- the color is metallic, candy-flake turquoise with silver candy-flake trim. A namesake deer head hangs from the wall in the dining room, as do straw sombreros and other rustic bric-a-brac. Wooden tables are surrounded by turquoise-painted ladderback chairs. It's a tropical hunting-lodge motif with automotive upholstery accents.
But the wacky joint has some great pupusas. I had the cheese and loroco. At $1.60, it was ten cents more than El Campero's, but it was really stuffed. The cheese seems to be mozzarella; long, gooey strings of it follow every bite, like I'm eating a homemade tortilla calzone. I get a little more of the loroco flavor by pulling out a whole bunch of buds and eating them together. Is there a chocolaty aroma? Does it taste like chocolate chard? What is this stuff?
I go to El Pupusadromo No. 1 6817 Bissonnet, (713)270-5030] and have another cheese and loroco pupusa ($1.50). The pupusas aren't quite as big, and the stuffing is thinner. Afterward, I go to the kitchen and ask to see the loroco. They pull out a bag of frozen greens and hand it to me. The stuff looks like a lot of evergreen buds, and the whole bag of it has a strong chocolate aroma. Xiomara Mendez tells me that in El Salvador people eat it fresh, but that here frozen is the only kind available. Fresh is much better, she says.
In the last few years, I've discovered that the wonder grain called amaranth comes from a weed you see by the side of the road all the time, and that epazote and chiles pequínes sprout in vacant lots in much of Texas. Since loroco grows wild in Central America, I wonder if it has some North American equivalent. So I start searching the Internet. I see a picture of fresh loroco at www.botany.utexas.edu . It doesn't look familiar. I read several restaurant reviews in other cities where food writers refer to it as a flowering plant that is popular in pupusas, but I already knew that. An academic paper identifies it as a nutritive green that has been eaten with a corn-based diet in parts of Central America for many years. And somebody else trying to track down information on loroco has asked about it at the Cornell University nutrition Web site, usually a reliable source of food knowledge. The experts at Cornell incorrectly assume it is fiddlehead fern, but they point the way to better info.
The USDA Nutrient Composition Book of Latin America tells us that loroco is commonly called fernaldia in English, or "fiddle shape," named after the outline of its flowers. (That must be why the Cornell guys confused it with fiddleheads or fiddlehead ferns, which are the shoots of the ostrich fern, a specialty of New England.) Loroco's scientific name is Fernaldia pandurata, and a 100-gram portion contains 32 calories, 2.6 grams of protein, 0.2 grams of fat and 6.8 grams of carbohydrate, as well as fiber, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin A and vitamin C. I imagine "Eat your loroco" is a phrase that mothers in El Salvador utter often.
Loroco also appears on the list of foods under consideration by the USDA's Commodity and Biological Risk Analysis (COBRA) team, the group that examines fresh agricultural products for import into the United States. I love this list, which reads like a trailer of coming attractions for foodies. Loroco is right there with noni and maypop from Hawaii, rambutan from Australia, babáco from Ecuador and false coriander from Guatemala.
The good news for Houston pupusa lovers is that someday soon, we may be stopping by El Campero or El Venado for a cheese and loroco pupusa that will blow our minds. At this very moment, I am imagining the aromatic flower buds, fresh and crunchy, covered with gooey cheese in the middle of some chewy, hot fresh masa.
But for the time being, the lack of fresh loroco stands between me and the definitive, just-like-downtown-San Salvador total pupusa experience. So this is a public appeal: Somewhere in this megalopolis, somebody is sitting on a stash of fresh loroco. I don't need to know your name, and I don't care how you got it. You can blindfold me and take me to a secret location -- just let me have a little taste.
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