All-You-Can-Eat Pupusas in Bellaire

Sweet fancy Jesus.

That was the first thing that ran through my mind as I was driving down Bellaire -- on my way to a different restaurant entirely -- and saw Pupusa Buffet instead. A whole buffet? Of pupusas? I had to stop.

Pupusa Buffet (5920 Bellaire) is a no-frills pupuseria in a part of town that's slowly become saturated by Salvadoran eateries. Inside, I was greeted by a friendly cashier with a gorgeous smile, who rang me up -- $4.99 for the entire spread -- before handing me a plate and instructing me on how the buffet works.

I guess she could see the excitement in my eyes as I looked at the variety of pupusas in front of me.

"You like pupusas?" she asked with a shy grin and a laugh.

"Oh, yes," I enthused.

"Then try the pollo con queso," she smiled back. "It's my favorite."

For the uninitiated, pupusas are the centerpiece of Salvadoran cuisine -- a cross between a quesadilla and an empanada, or like a closed-up gordita, is perhaps the best way to describe them -- and they can be filled with a variety of ingredients. But the best part of a pupusa for me is the thick, soft, corn tortillas that make up the outer portion. Made with masa de maiz, they're different from the thin, textured corn tortillas that we're more familiar with in Mexican cuisine.

I remember that Taco Cabana introduced pupusas to its menu some four or five years ago. I was intrigued (hey, the Cabana makes some good flour tortillas and queso) and headed to my closest drive-thru to try one. To say that the food that I got in my white bag didn't even remotely resemble a pupusa is an understatement. It was oblong, filled with chicken and red sauce and onions. It tasted awful.

I often look back on that experience and hope that Taco Cabana didn't turn off a whole segment of people from pupusas altogether.

At Pupusa Buffet, I grabbed a pollo con queso and a revuelta, my personal favorite, then filled up a glass with some jamaica -- the drinks are served buffet-style too, with other choices like tamarind and horchata on tap. On the opposite wall is a refrigerated cart housing the curtido, pickled cabbage meant to top your pupusas. It gives them a sweet, irresistible crunch.

The pollo con queso was a bit too salty for my tastes. The cheese inside tasted like cuajada, and, although I'm sure that wasn't the case, it would make sense given El Salvador's proximity to Nicaragua and their shared love of pickled cabbage.

On the other hand, the revuelta -- a combination of shredded beef, beans and cheese -- was beautiful, everything a pupusa should be. It was slightly fatty, savory, belly-warming stuff. It was even better with a few drops of the salsa roja on the table. Don't worry if you're afraid of a little heat, though; Salvadoran salsa roja tastes more like watered-down ketchup than what Texans think of as salsa.

The restaurant was doing a brisk business that weekday afternoon, people heaping plate after plate with the fat little discs, happily talking over their food and the novelas showing on one TV. It was almost like being in a family's den during dinner, if that family had gone all out and decided to serve you pupusas until you cried uncle and waddled happily out the door.

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Katharine Shilcutt