A long, manically cheerful mural on one of the walls at Salvadoran restaurant La Pupusa Loca re-imagines Los Angeles as a mostly empty, grass-filled valley, with nothing but one church, one school and one lone strip mall, housing La Pupusa Loca.
There are of course pupusas -- thick rounds of fresh masa, stuffed with any combination of cheese, beans, pork and vegetables and griddled until crispy. And a particular mastery is evident in the pupusas de arroz, made with rice flour.
But perhaps the most unrepentant pleasure here is the empanada. A Salvadoran empanada is a ludicrously joyous affair: a fat dumpling, made of sweet, ripe mashed plantains, filled with cream and fried to crisp perfection. It's like a plantain Twinkie from heaven. And La Pupusa Loca makes one of the best empanadas in L.A.
The restaurant uses hand-mashed plantains, chunky and pulpy. Instead of canned sweetened condensed milk for the filling, La Pupusa Loca uses freshly made poleada, a creamy mix of milk, cinnamon and a little flour. The empanada comes out fresh-mashed and fresh-fried, the browned surface beautifully cracked, its steaming yellow innards peeking out. It's utterly, childishly delightful. Maybe 5-year-olds feel this way about Elmo.
The menu at this east Hollywood joint is dominated by small dishes such as the empanadas and pupusas. You can order them as appetizers if you want, but most diners seem happy just to get a freewheeling mix of big plates and little plates, streaming out in whatever order the kitchen happens to make them.
The restaurant is owned by Sonia and Americo de la Nuez. Americo is Cuban, Sonia is Salvadoran. Sonia's in charge of the kitchen; she sets and tweaks every recipe. La Pupusa Loca, she says, is her way of channeling her nostalgia for the large family dinners of her youth. She goes back to El Salvador every three months, traveling around the country, looking for the best traditional recipes, such as sopa de res.
This beef soup is laden with hunks of short ribs, cabbage, carrots and yucca, and a whole piece of corn on the cob. The beef broth is radiant. The flavor of each vegetable is distinct -- aromatic carrots, earthy cabbage, sweet corn -- all balanced against the pure tang of the broth. A bowl of it is as sustaining as a soup can be.
Conversely, ensalada de frutas is made for hot nights. It's the love child of a fruit salad and a fruit drink. Fresh pineapple juice, fresh mamey juice and more, topped with fresh chopped apples and other fruits. It might be the single most refreshing beverage you've ever had.
Pollo en crema is fried chicken, topped with a beautifully tangy sauce of Salvadoran sour cream and rivulets of melted tomato.
In carne guisada, glorious hunks of beef are simmered to nearly melting in a mellow, warmly flavored tomato sauce. Tamales feature cloud-like masa, more like porky marshmallow fluff than anything made from corn.
Here, the fruit and dairy smoothies called licuados are gloriously dense and frothy. Order a zapote licuado if you tend toward the flowery and light; get a mamey licuado if you like your tropical fruits on the ripe and fermenty side.
Michelle, the couple's daughter and a supervisor at the restaurant, says the most popular dish is chilate con nuegados, a dessert -- or a main dish, depending on your mood. The chilate is a thick, savory drink made of ground corn; the nuegados is plantains and yams, simmered in honey, with a few fried yucca doughnut balls thrown in. It's exactly as delicious as it sounds.
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La Pupusa Loca
5716 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 957-2967.
Pupusas and tamales, $2; small dishes, $3 to $6; soups and entrees, $6 to $13; fruit drinks, $2 to $4.
Pupusas de arroz (pupusas made with rice flour); plantain empanada; tamal de elote con crema (corn tamale with cream); chilate con nuegados (hot corn drink served with plantains and yams simmered in honey with yucca doughnut balls); sopa de res (beef soup); carne guisada (stewed beef); pollo en crema; zapote and mamey licuados; ensalada de frutas.
Open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Soft drinks, hot drinks and fruit juices; no alcohol. No credit cards; ATM on premises. Lot and street parking.