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Pupu's Passport to the Tropics

March 12, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

"Ah, do I love the tropics," sighed one of my friends contentedly as we dug into pupusas at El Pupu Sodromo, a new Salvadoran restaurant in Fountain Valley. "I sure wish we were there."

El Pupu Sodromo's transcendent foods can almost get you there. You can have succulent cornmeal discs with savory fillings (pupusas), an ultra-rich Salvadoran tripe soup (mondongo) or a dish consisting of crisped bits of pork in a heady red sauce atop steamed slices of cassava root (yuca con chicharrones).

The food of El Salvador is something new in Orange County, and I predict it is going to be a trend. Call it a combination of native Central American and Spanish influences; sure, that describes Mexican too, but by no means mistake one for the other. Salvadoran food is more tropical--in terms of ingredients--yet more temperate--in terms of hotness--than its better-known counterpart to the north, with corn, in one form or another, playing the lead role.

Corn plays a role in the way owners Rene and Gina Mancia have decorated their mini-mall pupuseria as well. The restaurant is chockablock with potted palms, ferns and silk flowers, and at any hour you will hear in the background taped singers who sound like Marty Robbins warbling in Spanish. These appointments are pretty much canceled out by moss-green Formica tables; picnic-bench seating; a bizarre, particle-board parquet floor, and a couple of video games in a far corner.

One bite of the ethereal pupusas, though, and you're on the winning side again. Gina is the chef here, but the recipes all come from Rene's mother. She has taught her daughter-in-law well.

Pupusas are a dream snack. They look something like Mexican sopes, but they have far more complexity. The main ingredient is cornmeal masa. Gina pats her masa down to the size of a healthy hamburger, stuffs it with cheese or pork and fries it. Pupusas here and everywhere are eaten with curtido, a cabbage relish that could pass, visually at least, for cole slaw: crisp, lightly spiced, flavored with vinegar.

For an exotic treat, try pupusa de queso con loroco. Here the stuffing is a melted white cheese with a bittersweet tang. The unique flavor comes from the loroco, a dried flower bud that Salvadorans like to mix into cheese--think of loroco as capers, Central American style.

Meat eaters will favor the restaurant's pupusa con chicharron. This one is filled with a mild, fatty pork paste. Oddly, the effect is like a specialty found way, way to the north--namely, tourtiere, the pork pie that is Quebec's best-loved dish. Compromise eaters can cotton to pupusas rebueltas, made with a mix of cheese, pork and bean.

Mondongo is not for the faint of heart, but it is one of the most compelling dishes I know. It's a thick stew of cow's feet, tripe and starchy cassava root, made magical by a rich stock the color of cafe au lait. Salvadorans sprinkle it with chopped onion and a spice mixture dominated by cumin seed and black pepper.

Yuca con chicharrones is equally compelling but far less overwhelming. Think of this one as a warm salad with heart. It combines crisp roast pork, cucumber, radish and spiced onion in a lemony red sauce, all used as topping for white, glutinous chunks of cassava root. The top element is cooling, the bottom heating. It's almost Oriental in its sensibilities.

You needn't, of course, be so daring on a first visit. The Mancias have sprinkled this menu with more familiar fare, all favorites in their homeland. Bisteck encebollado turns out to be a grilled steak with onions, and pollo campero something like the skinless fried chicken you get at the L.A.-based franchise Koo Koo Roo. Camarones al mojo de ajo are a pile of terrific shrimp, sauteed in their shells with a serious shot of garlic. You could as well call milanesa a chicken-fried steak.

Almost everything at El Pupu Sodromo comes with fluffy, chicken-flavored rice and beans prepared in an unusual Salvadoran fashion. They're lardy pinto beans pureed to a milkshake smoothness. Personally, I'd pass on them.

Mancia is proud of his desserts. The quesadilla, which he calls "Salvadoran cheesecake," I find to be somewhat salty. It's his grandmother's recipe, a golden-brown, pancake-flat slice of cheese, cream, sugar and eggs, and you eat it plain, served warm. Actually, I prefer the "budding" (that's the menu spelling), a fluffy bread pudding drowned in hot cinnamon syrup.

Even better are a spate of remarkable fruit drinks, all of which are made fresh daily on the premises and served in icy plastic cups. Horchata is a milky-white rice punch you get in many Mexican restaurants, and this one is pretty heavy with the cinnamon. Pina is a sugar-sweet drink of pureed pineapple, and tamarindo is made with the juice from tamarind pulp.

My favorite is ensalada, a remarkable mixture of sliced fruits such as tamarind, maranon (cashew fruit) and pineapple, plus chopped watercress and celery. It's remarkably refreshing, and perfect for a hot--make that a tropical--day.

El Pupu Sodromo is inexpensive. Appetizers are $1.55 to $4.50. Dinners are $2.95 to $7.99. Desserts are $1.25.

* EL PUPU SODROMO

* 16650 Harbor Blvd., C-1, Fountain Valley.

* (714) 531-5963.

* Open daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

* Cash only.

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