Monday, October 18, 2004

To Know Salvadoran Food Is to Love Salvadoran Food - El Guanaco

I was on a jury most of last week, inhibiting slightly the passing out of vital information, but on the other hand, I got an extra visit to El Guanaco before writing about it. I have become rather smitten of Salvadoran food, at least as served there.

Until a few weeks ago, my knowledge of Salvadoran food ended about at: pupusas, something I thought of as cole slaw, and fried bananas with sour cream eaten years and years ago in DC. With this Salvadoran place, El Guanaco, opening very close to me, I am starting to learn a bit more about this food. The majority of the items on the comida Salvadorena section of the menu at El Guanaco (the menu also includes comida Mexicana, Pizza--thin, pan and by the slice--and even a section of antojitos Colombianos*) are under $3 and only one item, a combination plate extends to $9.50. What this means, at least to the VI family, is that we order tapas style from El Guanaco, lots of plates of things to try. And thus, we are learning a bit more of Salvadoran food.

The oddest thing we have learned is that Salvadorans appear to appreciate a jarring array of flavors at the table. Of course there are pupusas, heavier than say a quesadilla, with a hot but not Zim hot red sauce and the vinegary and oregano dominated slaw. But there is also the fried plantain with sour cream, also quite heavy but not spicy at all. Sweet. Yet, not nearly as sweet as the empanada de platano con leche. This should be a dessert, but it is clearly not in the section called postres or desserts. It is like a plantain donut, covered with sugar but stuffed inside with a log of condensed milk. Also, highly sweet and highly unusual was a kind of atole we tried last visit--not on the menu, ask. It is served in two parts. Part one is a bowl of mashed, very, very, very ripe yucca with a few dumplings similar to the above sugared milk log. It is very sweet. Part two is a large wobbly bowl (placed in another bowl for balance) of something yellow, tasting mostly of licorice. One of the chowhounditas compared it to the candied fennel seeds eaten post dinner in Indian restaurants. Like I say, you get a lot of flavors quickly on the table.

My favorite thing so far on our table at El Guanaco is their home-made sausage, "estilo cojutepeque". It reminded me twice of Thai sausage, both with its loose mixture of pork and its high herbal element. It is served with a medium sized handmade Salvadoran style tortilla, essentially an unstuffed pupusa. Those pupusas, they do not match my all time favorite served at the Hollywood California weekly farmer's market, but pupusas by dint of being made to order are almost all universally at least good. The pupusas at El Guanco come with the usual cheese and beans and chicharron but also unusual (to us) stuffings of lorocco, some type of Salvadoran flower and ayote, a kind of squash. Sliced jalepenos can be added to any pupusa. The only quibble we have had with the pupusas at El Guanaco is that on both visits, the pupusas we got did not match what we ordered. So, for instance, we have had the lorocco twice, but I am not quite sure what it tastes like. We got a chicarron pupusa by mistake the other night. I liked it a lot more than the rest of the family. It is not the really goey chicarron served in Mexican stews, but neither is it bacon crisp like you would get at Colombian resturants, about like a confit or rillete (to continue to be cross-cultural in references).

Even though dinner might include those sweet things, order dessert. El Guanaco makes a highly delicious homemade cheesecake, a bit in the style of Eli's but with a much better crust. Also, I should add, on the sweetness front, El Guanaco serves a whole range of Salvadoran drinks, pops, agua frescas, atoles, and they are all sweet, very sweet too. The atole, however, does come with a nice chunk of corn on the cob.

El Guanaco is a very good place to continue to learn about Salvadoran food. The staff, son and daughter of Mom who is in the kitchen, speak excellent English, and they are keen on introducing you to their stuff.

*Which is also how I learned about the Colombian fare. I noticed the owner's younger kidz eating Colombian empanadas. It gave me my opportunity to ask about the Colombian antojitos section of the menu. It seems that Mom, upon arrival from El Salvador many years earlier, took a job in a Colombian restaurant, eventually managing it. There, she learned how to make killer empandadas, or so her son says. Perhaps I will try, but I am still anxious to become a bit more expert on Salvadoran food.

El Guanaco
6345 W. Grand
Chicago, IL