I would like to think that I am somewhat knowledgable of the world around me. I love reading about far away places and wishing that I could hop on a plane to see Ulan Bator or Iceland or visit the penguins in Antarctica. Alas, on my salary, Avondale is about as exotic as it gets sometimes.
However, in my quest to at least be knowledgable, I try to find cuisines from other parts of the world. As fate would have it, I stumbled across a Salvadorian restaurant not to far from my East Phoenix home. I would have missed it on any other day because of it isn't in an area that I drive by with any regularity. But just above McDowell on 24th Street is Eliana's Authentic Salvadorian Cuisine.
I had never even thought about the food of El Salvador. For me, El Salvador was a small Central American country that had political difficulties in the 80s. Other than that, I was rather ignorant of the people, the country, and the food.
I pulled into the parking lot (careful, it is quite narrow) and parked the car. I only noticed one other car and thought maybe I would have the place to myself. I entered and saw that there was parking on the far side of building as well and several families were enjoying their meals.
The interior of the place is bright and festive with lots of paintings, decorative touches from El Salvador and a radio playing soft music. The place is spotless and the booths are quite comfortable.
I was handed a menu by a server and she asked if I had ever been to Eliana's before. I hadn't, so she told me that Salvadorian food is rather mild. I asked her for a Limonada ($1.25) and some water. I reviewed the menu while I waited. The menu was very basic, focusing on "comfort food." What I saw pleased me and I decided to get a couple of appetizers, but was having trouble deciding what to get as an entree.
The server returned with the Limonada and I asked for a few more minutes to make my choices. I was thrilled with the Limonada because it was excessively fresh. You could tell from the lemon juice that this was homemade and it was exceptional. A perfect way to start the meal.
I finally decided on what I wanted and ordered the Pasteles Salvadorenos de Carne ($3.00), a Salvadorian meat pie, along with the Pupusa ($2.00), which was a tortilla stuffed with cheese, pork, refried beans and bell pepper. For my entree, I went with the Carne Asada con "Chimal" ($8.95).
I sipped my Limonada and listed to the music. Only a moment or two had passed before my server returned with a nice treat.
Set in front of me was a small cup of Chicken Soup, a bowl of Salvadorian cole slaw, and a tomato "salsa." I dove into the soup because it smelled so wonderful. The broth was rich and filled with chunks of carrot, potato and white meat chicken. Very, very tasty. The server refilled my Limonada and told me the cole slaw was to go on top of my Pupusa. The soup, it turns out, is served with every order. This was an unexpected and pleasant surprise.
I had just finished the last drop of my soup when my two appetizers arrived on a huge decorative plate. The Pupusa was surrounded by two half moons of the Pasteles. Both were piping hot. I spooned some of the cole slaw onto the Pupusa and then cut a bite with my fork. The cheese was thoroughly melted and, I could tell, thoroughly yummy. I took my first bite and loved the mix of flavors. You could taste them all, but the beans were the dominating flavor, and a very good one at that. The cole slaw was tangy and added a nice contrast of flavors.
The Pastlese were simple, unassuming meat pies, but also contained some finely diced potatoes for texture. They were mildly spiced and I very much enjoyed the "crunch" when I bit into them. I then tried them with some of the tomato salsa and really enjoyed the flavor mix. The salsa was acidic and fresh and just added a nice dimension to the meat pies. Both appetizers were a success.
It was time for another round of Limonada (yeah, it was that good, so much so that I didn't miss my Diet Coke) before my entree arrived. My server wanted to make sure I had plenty of salsa and cole slaw.
She returned with my entree and the aroma had me salivating in seconds. I was a bit taken aback by the size of the platter and the amount of food on it. A large plate arrived with a sizeable piece of carne asada, topped with grilled onions and served with white rice, ranchero-style refried beans and a mini-salad. A small bowl of marinated, diced tomatoes accompanied the dish.
I cut into the carne asada and realized that this was very different from what you would get at a Sonoran-style Mexican restaurant. The meat was a cut of cube steak that had been tenderized, marinated in mild spices and then grilled. The meat was tender for cube steak and the flavor was subtle, but savory and smokey as well. The grilled onions were an excellent match due to their sweetness. The white rice was a nice change from "Spanish Rice" and the beans were tender, fragrant and had a nice bacon aftertaste to them. I also was given two of the thick tortillas and I loaded up a tortilla with a bit of everything on my plate before taking a bite. It was delicious.
I finished most of my plate, but wanted to save some room for dessert. I asked the server for a recommendation and was referred to the Banana Burrito. I asked if that was something authentic and she laughed and said she ate them a lot growing up. Fair enough. So I ordered it and waited.
It took a little longer than I anticipated to get my dessert. When it did arrive, a huge burrito with two scoops of ice cream greeted me. The Banana Burrito ($4.00) was approximately 10 inches long. A ripe banana had been rolled up into a flour tortilla and deep fried. When done cooking, it was sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and then plated. I cut the burrito in half and the shell was crispy and the steam flew out of the interior. I waited for a few minutes to let it cool, all the while eating the ice cream.
The ice cream was French Vanilla and very good. The burrito was very tasty. The banana was hot inside and the tortilla was very crisp. My only complaint was that it had been cooked a bit too long and there was a bit of a burnt taste to the tortilla which made it bitter. Still, the burrito was a success and I ate everything on the dessert plate with the exception of half of a scoop of the ice cream and a bit of the overcooked tortilla.
I got my bill and the total was $20.75 including tax. I paid the bill and departed.
I did discover that Eliana's is a family-run business and everyone pitches in to help. The family was engaging, but also rather soft-spoken. The service was top-notch and friendly.
When I left and got into my car, I thought about the meal and how I would describe it in its totality. Well, it is surely comfort food. Also, it is not someplace to go to see how much spicy heat you can tolerate in a dish.
I guess the best way to describe it would be to say that going to Eliana's is like going to your grandmother's house for Sunday dinner.
That is, if you had a Salvadorian grandmother.
Eliana's Authentic Salvadorian Cuisine
1627 North 24th Street
Phoenix, AZ 85008
Notes: Just north of McDowell Road. Try the Limonada.