South Side Eats: Pupuseria El Excelente Brings Salvadoran Food to Pilsen
Riding down 18th Street I noticed a colorful sign at the corner of South Wood. Further inspection showed that a new shop selling pupusas had opened. These are common in El Salvador where they are the national snack. While the city has a few places serving them, most of these are on the West Side and they seem to come and go pretty quick. El Excelente, I was told, has been open for about five months and, judging from others reviews upon investigation, they've had a pretty positive following.
Aside from the house specialty, the rest of the menu is limited, but options include traditional Salvadoran snacks like chicken and corn tamales as well as a Yuca Frita con Fritada with pig head in sauce. That's what I started out with. The fried yuca were as good as any french fries I've had of late. The little pieces of pork head had similar texture to lengua, but it was kind of lost with the cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, salsa, and everything else in it. That said everything together made for a nice change of pace bite.
Pupusas are made with masa and come hand formed into thick patties with fillings stuffed inside. They closely resemble Mexican gorditas. Traditional options include pork (usually chicharrón ground down to mush), cheese, and refried beans—all of which are available here. You can get a "scrambie" that includes all three. I opted for a scrambie, a regular pork, and a beans and cheese. These are bigger than any other pupusas I've eaten, so two should be more than enough. I found the scrambie and beans and cheese ones better, since the plain pork was just a little too dry. The cheese really helped even the others out.
Crucial to any plate of pupusas is curtido, a lightly fermented cabbage slaw usually made with red chilies and vinegar. Common throughout Central America, it's most popular on pupusas and can take them from okay to tasty. Make sure to put both the red salsa and the slaw on them. I thought these were solid, which is pretty much how I'd describe Salvadoran cuisine. It's not going to knock you off your culinary high chair, but it can be comforting. Count on El Excelente to be just that.