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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Pupusa Sunrise

August 11, 1994|JONATHAN GOLD

El Amanecer is a sweet Salvadoran cafe in a neighborhood with a hundred of them, crowded with families during the daytime and dating couples at night, a two-story Spanish stucco thing blasting salsa music, encrusted with beer ads and soccer posters, fragrant with frying onions. It feels as much like an actual restaurant in Latin America as any place in Los Angeles. Other Salvadoran restaurants may have tastier horchata or corn tamales that are slightly less dry, but El Amanecer is a place you'd take your most finicky friend.

" Amanecer " is Spanish for "sunrise," and the restaurant's logo, a stork silhouetted against the rising sun, seems to be on almost everything here but the actual food.

Chicken tamales are wet, almost pudding-like, steamed in banana leaves and delicately herbal in flavor, stuffed with cassava root and slivers of meat; sweet-corn tamales are plump, with the nearly vanilla aroma of roasted corn and a puddle of tart Salvadoran cream alongside. Yuca con chicharron is an essay in texture, the shatteringly crisp crust of the fingers of fried cassava giving way to a moist, steamy interior as compelling as that of the best steak fries, with a tart cabbage salad alongside and a few chunks of fried pork skin almost numbing in their richness, perfect with a splash or two of hot sauce.

Somebody here has an addiction to (Spanish-language) signs. One notice translates roughly into "Thank$ are not enough," admonishing the patrons to tip. Other signs warn that vandalism is a crime, that a maximum of three beers will be served to any person with dinner, and that children mustn't be allowed to play on the stairs. Someone here also has a sense of humor: The lunch special one day was " caldo de pollo y uno Bud."

Main dishes are served with rice, pureed beans, thumb-thick tortillas that are close to Colombian arepas : one stewed chicken served with sweet, sauteed onions, and another, pollo guisado , in a smooth tomato sauce. Little balls of grilled Salvadoran chorizo tied with bits of corn husk, hotly spiced and intensely herbal, are terrific, among the best chorizos in town. Carne deshebrada (dried, shredded beef sauteed with onions and peppers and egg) is something very like a good Mexican machaca ; the whole fish mojarra , marinated in citrus and fried to a crunch, is fine.

But a Salvadoran restaurant lives or dies by its pupusas , the griddled cornmeal cakes that seem to be the combined hamburger, hot dog and pizza of Salvadoran snack cuisine, and El Amanecer's pupusas are swell, if a tad more elegant than the usual crunchy, oily variety: soft in texture, of clear corn flavor, filled with salty melted cheese and either roast pork or minced bits of the asparagus-like loroco . You garnish pupusas with a few forkfuls of the spicy cabbage slaw curtido taken from a big jar and splash them with El Amanecer's splendid house-made tomato sauce. One pupusa makes an appetizer; two, a filling lunch.

* El Amanecer Salvadoreno

3059 West 8th St., Los Angeles, (213) 382-2591. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Cash only. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $9-$14.

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