In El Salvador, pupusas are more than a fad. These thick tortillas (made with corn or rice flour, then stuffed with cheese and other tasty ingredients) date back more than 2,000 years. They’re the Central American country’s national dish (with its own national holiday every November!) and a source of Salvadoran pride, worldwide.
In every U.S. town with a Salvadoran community, you’ll probably find a pupusería. That includes Grand Rapids’ número uno pupusa palace: Pupuseria El Salvador, a world-class pupusería in a modest storefront on Division Ave. just south of 44th Street.
Blink and you’ll miss it, but this place is a local center of Salvadoran culture.
For here (or para llevar), Pupuseria El Salvador is home to flavors you won’t find anywhere else in town — and varieties that owner Dina Suarez has created to delight Hispanic diners beyond her native El Salvador.
Suarez has been in the pupusa game for 40 years, ever since moving to California at age 19. After she arrived in Grand Rapids, Suarez saw potential for a brick-and-mortar location that would serve up Salvadoran food and culture. “The restaurant came about because there was no sign of Salvadoran culture in Grand Rapids,” Suarez said. “I wanted to share my culture through food.”
Suarez opened Pupuseria El Salvador in February 2005 with a simple menu that’s grown over the years. “Because of our popularity, we’ve expanded to encapsulate other cultures,” like Mexican and Honduran cuisines. “For sure, it’s a place for people from all walks of life.”
When you order pupusas, cornmeal and cheese are table stakes. The most popular traditional combination are pupusas revueltas, stuffed with cheese, beans and chicharron (fried pork). But if you like your pupusas vegan, ask the kitchen to substitute refried black beans. Pupuseria El Salvador makes each of its pupusas to order from scratch.
From there, you’ll want to sample some ingredients that have been part of Mesoamerican cuisine for thousands of years but are hard to find in Grand Rapids:
Loroco is a perennial vine native to Central America. Its edible, green buds have a delicate, subtly flowery flavor. (Think asparagus.)
Chipilin is a leafy green vegetable with a passing resemblance to watercress.
Like the name suggests, flor de calabaza (“pumpkin flower”), is the edible blossom of the pumpkin plant. Picked when they are young and still closed, the blossoms have a delicate and slightly sweet flavor.
Besides these old, old-school Salvadoran ingredients, check out Suarez’s pupusa innovations designed for Mexican palates, such as pupusas stuffed with huitlacoche, an edible fungus that grows on young ears of corn. It’s a nutritious and tasty variation on mushrooms. Another pupusa combination inspired by Mexico combines jalapeños and nopale cactus.
Other products of Suarez’s pupusa experimentation include pupusas with shrimp, chicken and steak. And if you want to mix and match, ask the kitchen to combine the ingredients that capture your imagination.
The pupusas come with a side of homemade salsa as well as curtido, a tangy pink cabbage slaw. I recommend the combination plate with your choice of two pupusas, sweet fried plantain and Salvadoran sour cream.
While it was built on pupusas, Pupuseria El Salvador offers a fiesta of other Central American dishes, from fried tilapia to pollo en pipian (Mexican chicken in a sauce made from ground pumpkin seeds) to tacos and burritos.
To complement your meal, Señora Suarez recommends her assortment of Salvadoran seafood appetizers — or warm up with one of the pupuseria’s soup selections.
And for dessert, try the torrejas en miel (a sort of Salvadoran French toast prepared with honey) or the sweet empanadas made from plantains.
Suarez said she’s grateful to her customers for sharing her culture and inspiring her to introduce new dishes and ingredients. “I thank the community for being here — and also God, my family and my workers.”
As they say in El Salvador, “¡Si la vida te da loroco, haz pupusas!” (If life gives you loroco, make pupusas!) ¡Comamos!
Pupuseria El Salvador is located at 4639 Division Ave. SW in Wyoming.