Elmomonster and I both recently wrote about this place on our respective blogs. He's got photos on his blog, I do not. Text from mine is below.
# # #
Pupusas are not the infantbearing slings worn by native American women. No, pupusas are to El Salvador what quesadillas are to the United States. None of the very divergent things called quesadillas found across the regions of Mexico are anything like the bland grilled-cheese-on-a-flavorless-flour-tortilla as we know it in the US. But that's another story for another time.
We're talking about pupusas: fresh masa dough and savory fillings like cheese, chorizo, meat and vegetables handpatted into a flat round disc about 8 inches in diameter, then griddled until crisp. Make the masa too thin, and the fillings can leak. Make the masa too thick, and it's as clodgy and heavy as day old oatmeal.
That baby bear, just right balance point tips precipitously close on the too-thin side of the equation, and you'll find it at Pupusería San Sivar, a wee, modest restaurant in an unassuming Costa Mesa strip mall. Proudly displayed on the door and wall sits their justly deserved Best Eats of OC 2005 award from the paper I occasionally write for, the OC Weekly.
Seven classic flavors are offered. Can't go wrong with revueltas con queso, frijol y chicharron: a mixed cheese, bean and pork filling. I heavily favor the ones here with chicharron. Pollo is a mildly seasoned shredded chicken meat, without cheese, which is only ok in my book. I'm partial to the squash with cheese, called calabazitas. Loroco is a pod-like vegetable whose shreds are sauteed and mixed with cheese. The cheese lets off an agreeable slick of oil, in the way a good New York pizza slice might ooze a little orange grease. Don't let it harsh your mellow.
Pupusas de arroz, made of rice flour, cost 20 cents more than corn and are an unusual variation on the theme. The rice dough tastes plainer than the corn version, but its texture is phenomenally better in my opinion. Something about the gels and starches in rice give it the ability to crisp into a toasty, crunchy, browned crust.
Rice eating people the world over fight for the crisp brownies at the bottom of the rice cooker. Persians invert this browned crust in the dish called tadig. Japanese grill rice balls into yaki onigiri, and Italians fry rice balls into arancini. Koreans use a superheated stone pot to serve the rice dish called dolsot bibimbap, which continually toasts your rice while you eat it. Rice's ability to take on a browned crust makes its way to El Salvador in their most popular dish.
Salvadoran food doesn't mandate chili heat like so many Mexican dishes, so the spicy variation of curtido, the requisite side dish of cabbage slaw is surprising, and good. Sweet is balanced with vinegar which has been infused with red chili flakes.
San Sivar makes their own horchata salvadorena in house. They flavor this version of the rice drink with ground sesame, cacao bean, pepitas, morro seed and cinnamon. Very unlike Mexican horchata, and definitely not from the concentrate that most restaurants use.
One last bit of advice. Eat pupusas as soon as they hit the table. The half life on these things is about 8 minutes, after which the crisp goes soggy, the starches in the dough stiffen, and the whole thing skids downhill fast and faceplants like your first time on a snowboard. Take out is a last resort, m'kay?
Pupusería San Sivar
1940 Harbor Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA