Be it pictures on the walls or flowers on the tables, a warm greeting from the host or the clatter & chatter of regulars, welcome signs take many forms—any & all of them welcome in turn to the chowhound on the doorstep of a potential discovery. After months of passing El Cuscatleco, a barely-there Salvadoran strip-mall joint on Federal, with a curious eye, I finally crossed its threshold one midday with a willing pal in tow—only to be met by the equivalent of the sound of crickets.
But for a telenovela blaring on the flatscreen TV, the dining room was threadbare & empty, the scent of cleaning products stronger than any cooking aroma. We stood there confused for a moment, wondering if the place was closed at the peak of the lunch hour; when a lone figure emerged from the kitchen, she, too, seemed a little confused by our presence before leading us wordlessly tableward. And though the menus she handed us were filled with terms I didn’t recognize—always a thrill—her inability to define them either to me or to my Spanish-speaking companion struck me as yet another warning rather than welcome sign, especially when she admitted she hadn’t tried much of the food. By the time she started listing all the things they were out of, I was mentally halfway out the door even as I placed my order.
But then she said: “Do you want flour tortillas or homemade corn tortillas with that?” Ah. Finally, my kind of bienvenidos. Long story short: as introductions to Salvadoran cuisine go, El Cuscatleco may not be the smoothest or most obliging. But for the intrepid culinary explorer, it is absolutely worthwhile.
Start with pupusas, the stuffed, thick tortillas that are El Salvador’s signature version of Mexican gorditas &/or Venezuelan arepas. Mine arrived warm & practically oozing with chicharrón—not in this case merely the skin of fried pork but also spiced, shredded meat—alongside a terrific dipping sauce flavored with tomatoes, chiles, garlic, & parsley. (That is in turn accompanied by a bowl of curtido, a traditional cabbage concoction that you might say marks the midpoint between coleslaw & kimchi; El Cuscatleco’s recipe lacked much vinegar tang, though flecks of chile compensated.)
Then move on to the mariscos (seafood): being (like all Central American nations) coastal, El Salvador is blessed with an abundance.
Excited by the menu’s lengthy selection, I zeroed in on what looked like a house specialty—a seafood soup called mariscadas Salvadoreña—until I saw the $20 price tag. Perhaps it was for two or more? Our server assured me it was not. Of course, given her performance thus far, I should have trusted my own instincts: I was soon confronted by a giant bowl chockablock with crab legs, shelled mussels, plump shrimp, & chunks of octopus & whitefish along with potatoes, onions, & carrots. It was a feast not least for the heady broth, based on tomatoes & what the menu calls “sour cream”—more likely the sort of blend of whipping & sour cream known in many south-of-the-border countries as crema.
Ultimately, good food is the only welcome sign that matters; I can’t wait to return for some atole de elote (a milky corn puree)—& many more of those gorgeous tortillas.
El Cuscatleco: 1550 S. Federal Blvd., Denver; 303.936.0866; Lunch and dinner daily; $2.50-$20.