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East Side Vacation at El Petate: A Guide to Salvadoran Cuisine

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If you're anything like me, pupusas are the first thing that spring to mind when thinking of Salvadoran food. And why not: The fat, round pockets of cheese, beans, meat (and sometimes all three) are like the divine offspring of Mexican quesadillas and gorditas. They're portable and easy to consume, but they're even better when enjoyed with friends at the table, heaps of cabbage-carrot slaw called curtido placed on top to cut through the soft fattiness of the masa.

It goes without saying, though, that there's more to the coastal Central American country's cuisine than just pupusas. And at El Petate -- the subject of this week's cafe review -- you can try some of the cuisine's best dishes.

The menu can be a bit perplexing for newcomers, despite its English translations for most dishes. Those translations don't always convey exactly what the dish is -- especially if you're accustomed to the Mexican versions of those dishes, like empanadas or salpicón. So here's a crash course on a few key Salvadoran dishes for you to use as a handy guide at El Petate, or at any of the great Salvadoran restaurants around town. Note: Many of these items have "Mexican" names, but are in fact wholly different dishes.

Pupusas: The Salvadoran version of a taco, made with a much thicker corn tortilla and stuffed with various fillings. Queso (a salty, crumbly cheese), beans, meat, revueltos (a combination of all three) and loroco (a kind of squash blossom) are the most common.

Curtido: The traditional accompaniment/condiment for pupusas. A slaw of cabbage and carrots marinated in slightly spicy vinegar. The level of spice differs from restaurant to restaurant, and it's almost always served in a communal jar or from a communal condiment area. You will also often see a watery, sweet tomato salsa served alongside it.

Pan con Gallina: Essentially, a chicken sandwich. Marinated chicken is served on crusty French bread with mayo, peppers and -- yes -- fresh, peppery piles of watercress. Think of it as the Salvadoran version of a banh mi.

Tamales: Salvadoran tamales usually come wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks, with a silkier masa and one of three common fillings: chicken, pork or sweet corn. The sweet corn -- elote -- tamales are "deaf," meaning that there is no tube of filling inside; instead, the corn is mixed into the masa. It's then topped with tangy crema, a sour cream-like condiment seen throughout Salvadoran cuisine.

Salpicón: Traditionally a French term, in Salvadoran cooking it refers to savory shredded beef mixed with raw radishes and white onions. It's served with dirty rice and refried beans, along with a few fat corn tortillas in which to put your salpicón. Roll it up like a taco and add a few spoonfuls of crema on top.

Chilate: A watery soup made with roasted corn, and often ginger, peppercorns and other spices. Meant to be eaten/drunk with nuegados.

Nuegados: Fritters made from yuca (also called cassava), a starchy, tuberous root that's common in tropical climates. The fritters are savory, but they're soaked in a molasses-like syrup that makes them sweet and salty at once. Usually served with candied plantains on the side, and a bowl of chilate to drink.

Pastelitos: Another portable, meat-filled pocket of joy, pastelitos are usually filled with shredded beef and are notable for the bright red pastry shells that look like blushing empanadas. The red color comes from achiote in the pastry dough, which gives the pastelitos an additional layer of dusky, rich flavor.

Yuca con Chicharron: This is just what it sounds like: crispy, fried batons of yuca accompanied by deep-fried pork belly. This traditional dish hits all the comfort food buttons on one plate: crunchy, fatty, starchy, meaty and salty. Also commonly eaten with curtido on top.

Mondongo: Think of this as the "fall harvest" version of menudo, as its base is the same honeycomb beef tripe. Sopa de mondongo is much lighter in color and flavor, though. Its bright golden hue comes from the huge variety of vegetables accompanying the tripe: bananas, cabbage leaves, yuca, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, carrots, potatoes, green chiles and more are found, with the amounts varying from place to place.

Quesadilla: In El Salvador, quesadillas are eaten for dessert. And that's because they aren't tortillas sandwiching cheese and shrimp; here, quesadilla is a sweet, spongy dessert cake that's topped with sesame seeds. Made with lots and lots of butter, eggs, whole milk and sugar, it's incredibly rich but very delicious.

Cebada: Agua de cebada is a popular summer drink, refreshing and sweet -- and it's actually somewhat good for you. Much like horchata's base is rice flour, cebada's base is barley flour. It's mixed with vanilla, cinnamon, sugar and watered-down milk, and should be a familiar taste to anyone accustomed to Mexican horchata.

Horchata: Speaking of... Unlike Mexican horchata, Salvadoran horchata is stronger and richer. The main difference is the addition of morro seed to the rice flour base, which imparts a darker color to the beverage as well as a flavor that's between cocoa and licorice. It's also grittier than Mexican horchata, but it grows on you after a few sips.

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