Those of us who call the Washington area home are fortunate enough to be able to sample pupusas anytime we want, given that the latest Census figures show that more than 240,000 Salvadorans have settled in the region, many of them refugees from the long and bloody civil war back in the home country. These immigrants brought their food with them, of course, which means pupusas hide in plain sight all over the place.
You can find pupusas on custom-built trucks squatting next to gas stations in Silver Spring. You can find them in storefront pupuserias along 14th Street NW (the stretch not gentrified into the land of $14 cocktails, that is). You can even find them buried deep in restaurant menus, lost among a mess of “Mexican” dishes cobbled together by Salvadorans who still think they have to hedge their bets with North American diners.
But how much do any of us know about pupusas? Personally, I had been eating them for years, not always grasping the finer details of what makes one superb and another sub-par. The more I looked at the pupusa, in fact, the more questions arose. Why, for example, do most pupuserias serve essentially the same ones, like the pork-bean-cheese combo known as the “revuelta,” as if U.S.-style invention were off limits at these joints? I was also curious to know if the cakes were prepared differently in El Salvador vs. the States. And perhaps most important: Why is the “humble” pupusa so unbelievably difficult to make on your own?
Finding answers to my questions wasn’t always easy in a world where English is a second language and where my pidgin Spanish frequently results in long silences over the phone, followed by an abrupt click. Which is why I almost wanted to hug Jaime Arbaiza, general manager of the La Casita location in Silver Spring. With Jaime, I had access not only to the inner workings of a modern pupuseria but also to a man who could articulate (in English for Mr. Gringo here) the minute differences between pupusas in the United States and El Salvador.
Or at least I had access to a man who could turn to his mother and La Casita co-owner, Leonor Arbaiza, a Salvadoran native who recently visited the home country. Between them, mother and son tell me that pupusas in El Salvador tend to be about an inch smaller — at least when purchased from one of the many street vendors — and considerably thinner than the versions found here. Jaime chalks up the differences to simple economics. “Over there, they try to save as much as they can,” he says.