As a girl growing up in the 1980s in Cojutepeque, a city in central El Salvador, Elsy Claros remembers the pupusas her mother sold at the market. They were the ones popular almost everywhere in the country: thin, hand-shaped pockets stuffed with cheese mixed with chicharrón or fried beans or a local flower bud called loroco, the soft curds sometimes bursting from the Masa shell to form shallow pools of browned, chewy cheese, a pleasure all their own.
The state of the pupusa hasn’t all that much in the intervening years, even after Claros, 43, moved north to the United States in 1997 and started a small chain of pupuserias with her three sisters. Pupuseria La Familiar, like many Salvadoran establishments in the region, doesn’t stray far from the classic ingredients, although the Beltsville location does deal a couple of wild cards, such as a pupusa packed with peppermint and beans.
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From the moment Claros decided to open a restaurant separate from her siblings, she knew she wanted to reconsider the possibilities of the pupusa. She and her daughter, Ericka, 19, decided to test the limits of the Salvadoran snack, believing its potential could be as boundless as that flatbread canvas from Italy otherwise known as the pizza. Mother and daughter took to the experiment like scientists on the edge of discovery.
Opened earlier this year in the Ritchie Center in Rockville, Pupuseria Mama Emilia is named for Claros’s late mother, the woman who taught her the art of the pupusa, even if Emilia Cruz Lopez wouldn’t recognize most of the mass cakes on the menu. The standard pupusas are available, made with either rice or corn flour, but they’re supplemented with inventions that thumb their nose at tradition. There are pockets packed with kale and cheese, beans and mint, sweet root vegetables, crab sticks and shrimp, and other combinations little known to the Salvadoran table. There is even a pupuseria ode to the Hawaiian pizza.
I’m the perfect audience for these innovations because I wasn’t raised on any pupusa traditions. But I also believe that foods, like plants and animals on this big blue marble, follow a natural evolution. They adapt to new environments. It strikes me that the pupusa, with a few exceptions here and there, has basically resisted all pressures to express new traits. Mama Emilia is pupusa evolution unfolding in real time.
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Like any change, this one has encountered resistance.
Those in the Salvadoran American community “are a little curious. When they call and ask what we offer and we start going through the list, I guess they’re so inundated and so overwhelmed with the combinations, they just revert back ”to the classics, says Danny Claros, who serves as interpreter to his wife , Elsy, during a phone interview.
The best way to deal with the abundance, I find, is to order the pupusa sampler. Listed among the menu’s first-course plates, the sampler is an appetizer in name only. It features eight “mini” pupusas – four formed with mass, four made with chewier rice-flour dough – that together make for a complete meal by almost anyone’s definition. Half the pupusas incorporate your choice of fillings from Elsy and Ericka’s specialty combinations.
Still, limiting yourself to only four specialty pupusas can generate more than a little tableside anxiety, as a server watches you review and maybe reconsider your options among the 25 or so combinations on the menu. Some choices are leaps of faith. Others, like a pairing of garlic and cheese, seem custom-made for grilled Masa. Some are not so far removed from combinations that are already part of Salvadoran gastronomy, such as broccoli and cheese (whose flavors are akin to loroco and cheese) or ham and cheese (basically a cured variation on chicharrón and cheese).
But for those who seek adventure, Mama Emilia will often reward you. The “embutida” pupusa is a total pig-out, a Masa shell in which ham, sausage and mortadella are suspended in the kitchen’s custom three-cheese blend. The chorizo-and-cheese combo is a more concentrated blast of pork, as the spicy sausage releases its oil, staining large swaths of your pupusa shell. The “explosiva” pairs loroco with cheese and habanero and jalapeño chiles for a pupusa that lives up to its name. The Hawaiian, with its grilled pineapple and ham, is pure joy in pupusa form.
One reason pupusa makers may not be eager to adopt the anything-goes philosophy of American pizzaiolos is the nature of the snack itself. The pupusa, naturally gluten-free, is not as accommodating as pizza. Wet fillings tend to cause the mass to disintegrate. Dry fillings ball up in the middle, making for uneven bites.
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Elsy and Ericka Claros have developed techniques to work around these limitations: They, for example, grill the pineapple to help evaporate its juices. They rely on their cheese blend – mozzarella, quesillo and crumbly Salvadoran queso duro – to bind ingredients, such as the carrots, beets and sweet potato in the superb “dulce” pupusa. Even with their best efforts, though, I’m still not convinced a pupusa makes a great medium for mariscos, at least not imitation crab and tilapia.
Mama Emilia exudes a homey quality befitting a place named for the family matriarch. Every pupusa is prepared to order, by hand, a devotion to the craft that sometimes, in return, demands patience at the table, especially when the restaurant fills with other hungry diners. The two principal condiments – a vinegar-laced curtido slaw and a tomato salsa infused with garlic and fresh herbs – are made daily in-house. Should you desire other accents, the kitchen also prepares a dish called pupusa montañesa, in which a pair of Masa cakes are entombed in refried beans, crema, fried eggs, avocado slices, two salsas and a dusting of aged queso duro, whose earthy, funk-forward flavors align with the great stinky cheeses of the world.
Despite its wealth of specialty pupusas, Mama Emilia remains a work in progress. Elsy and Ericka continue to experiment. I’m told they’re developing a pepperoni pupusa and another that leans on Indian spice blends. They’re even testing their own take on Taco Bell’s cheesy gordita crunch, in which a deep-fried pupusa is wrapped in a flour tortilla with refried beans, tomatoes, lettuce and more. Mama Emilia might not recognize this monstrosity as Salvadoran cooking, but I’m about ready to declare it genius before it graces a single menu.
785-H Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md., 301-605-7063.
Hours: 10:30 am to 10 pm Monday through Thursday; 9 am to 10 pm Friday through Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Rockville, with less than a mile to the restaurant.
Prices: $ 1.50 to $ 18.99 for all items on the menu.