El Pulgarcito on East Prater Way in Sparks serves Salvadoran and Mexican cuisines. The restaurant’s name is Spanish for Tom Thumb. Salvadorans affectionately refer to their country as El Pulgarcito, or Tom Thumb, because the country is the geographically smallest in Central America.
I first discovered Salvadoran food about a decade ago when one of my coworkers suggested pupusas for lunch. Pupusas, a traditional Salvadoran dish, are essentially thick corn tortillas filled with meat, cheese, beans, or loroco and cooked on a grill. Loroco is a vine plant that has edible flowers and buds. The dish is also often served with curtido, a mildly spicy fermented slaw. Pupuserías are purveyors of pupusas.
It’s easy to take for granted our staple foods, so I’m so grateful to my former coworker for exposing me to a type of food previously unknown to me. Many of us grow up eating certain dishes and types of cuisine with minds open to foreign cuisines, but I personally find it difficult to know which foods I’m ignorant of until someone exposes me to them.
Jennifer Chacon, daughter of the restaurant’s owner, Lilia Galeana, took my order at the front counter. I selected two dishes off the á la carte menu: the platano frito ($5.99) and two pupusas ($1.99 each). After I paid, she handed me a glass of water and a basket of chips. I dropped my beverage and chips at a table of my choice and then headed to their salsa bar. Salsa bars trump candy bars, boozy bars, handlebars, Roseanne Barrs, and pretty much every other kind of bar.
The restaurant offers a mild tomato salsa, a higher heat red chili salsa, a pico de gallo, and a moderate heat green salsa. I filled a couple plastic ramekins with the moderate heat red and green salsas.
The red salsa had a nice roasted chili flavor, a solid kick, and a somewhat thin consistency. The green salsa also had a kick and an enjoyable, punchy, citric flavor. The chips were a pretty standard round variety – thin, crisp, and a little salty.
The platano frito dish, or fried plantain, arrived in less than ten minutes. The plantains were fried to a beautiful crisp and served with crema and beans. The plantains caramelized a bit during cooking adding a touch of sweetness. The partly crisp, partly chewy, spears were the perfect vehicles for the especially flavorful beans. Some people might be put off by beans on the thinner side as they were with my meal, but I thought they served well as a salty and zesty dip for the plantains. The plantains with the crema create a great brunch type flavor with tart, savory, and sweet notes against a crisp texture.
Next, I received my two pupusas. I opted for the queso con loroco and revuelta varieties. The queso con loroco, or cheese with loroco, was soft and chewy with the loroco providing a floral and squash-like flavor. The cheese inside is a mixture of queso fresco and mozzarella. As the pupusa cooks, it’s common for some cheese to leak out and get crispy on the grill. Crispy grilled cheese is such a welcome bonus to an already delicious dish. The pupusa was tasty by itself, but adding the curtido, lime, and red salsa increased the flavor tenfold.
I found the curtido to be especially tasty at El Pulgarcito. I asked Chacon what the secret is behind the spicy and tangy, fermented slaw. She advised that the cabbage, carrots, and onion ferment over the course of two days. The fermentation process, along with some vinegar, creates a tangy, briny, spicy slaw that will beat just about any BBQ-style slaw that I’ve eaten.
I selected the revuelta, or mixed variety, for my second pupusa. The revuelta typically contains Salvadoran-style chicharrón, beans, and cheese. Salvadoran-style chicharrón is very finely ground pork that ends up almost pasty when cooked. I didn’t taste any cheese in this version of the pupusa, so best to ask for it if you’d like it.
Despite the absence of the cheese, I very much enjoyed the pupusa. The chicharrón and beans create a deep savory flavor that is wonderful against the tang and heat of the curtido, salsa, and lime.
Salvadoran food, so I’m told, typically does not contain much heat. I like restaurants that merge Salvadoran and Mexican cooking styles, because I love heat in my food.
Mixing sweet and savory is one of my favorite parts about many brunch dishes. El Pulgarcito, now open for about two years, is an excellent brunch choice off the beaten path not just because the food is wonderful, but also because the staff is friendly and welcoming.
El Pulgarcito is located at 624 East Prater Way just behind McDonald’s in the strip mall. They are open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and they are closed on Mondays. Call them for a pick-up order at 775-331-9077.