My friend Carmen, a native of Guatemala, asked me for a favor. It seemed like a simple task. She wanted to find out if the new Salvadoran restaurant, El Salvadoreño, planned to serve some of the holiday dishes that she ate growing up, that she has had to live without in Kansas City.
"The cuisine of the two countries is very similar," she told me. "Both countries are very small and share a border, and have similar terrain and agriculture. Most of the signature dishes of the cuisine of El Salvador are familiar dishes in Guatemala, too."
Carmen had yet to venture across the border to dine at El Salvadoreño, but she'd heard that the place in Overland Park served the best pupusas in the metro. "I just want to find out if the restaurant serves the dishes I remember from holidays in Guatemala, like a sandwich called pan con chumpe, and a jam-filled pastry called semita."
I tried to get the correct answers on my second visit to the very bright, little storefront restaurant on the main drag of Overland Park's old downtown, but I wound up having a "Who's on First" exchange with my server. Instead of finding out about a semita, I got a mango shake. In the moment, it satisfied my curiosity.
Salvadoran food does share turf with Guatemalan dishes — and with any American burger shack. Many of the dishes aren't so much exotic as they are starchy and fried. Those pupusas — delicious masa tortillas filled with cheese or beans or other ingredients — are as tasty and uncomplicated as any fast-food sandwich, and the beverages are sweet, like soda or milk-and-ice-based shakes. But it's not entirely the stuff of drive-thru windows; El Salvadoreño may offer this area's only carrot milkshake.
In fact, you'd better like carrots if you're going to enjoy the cuisine at El Salvadoreño. The root vegetable is an important component of the place's fat, empañada-like savory pastries: pasteles. The vegetable version, stuffed with chopped carrots and paper-thin slices of squash, onion and potato, is particularly delicious. (Like the yuca frita, it's fried in vegetable oil. And all of the meatless dishes here, including the refried beans, are vegetarian-friendly.)
And what would the most divine condiment on the El Salvadoreño menu be without the lowly carrot? Almost everything I ordered here I ate with the spicy, vinegary slaw called curtido, a combination of chopped carrots, onion, cabbage and red-pepper flakes. Some of the more bland offerings at El Salvadoreño, like the cheese pupusa or the fried yuca, are a lot tastier and livelier when smothered under a heap of curtido. It's so popular in this restaurant that the servers bring giant plastic canisters of the slaw — with convenient tongs — to the tables. It's punchy, not fiery, and it's excellent with everything except perhaps the flan.
The small restaurant (seven tables and eight counter stools) is family owned and operated by three professional cooks: Benjamin Sol; his wife, Blanca Alvarenga; and Blanca's brother, Jonathan Chavez Alvarenga. Various other relatives were working in the dining room during my visits, all very friendly and accommodating.
Benjamin Sol told me that few diners he has met have any experience with the foods of Central America. His first task is to dispel any assumptions about the cuisine.
"We're not Tex-Mex and we're not a Brazilian steakhouse like Fogo de Chao," Sol said. "I think we do a very good job in explaining what exactly Salvadoran cuisine really is. It's simple food and not very expensive. People come in and leave full and happy."
The afternoon I stopped in for lunch with Carol Jean and Martha, I watched Carol Jean's eyes glaze over as she scanned the limited menu and its blurry photographs of some of the dishes. Carol Jean's taste for ethnic cuisine starts with tacos and ends with chicken-fried rice. She could barely pronounce the word pupusa, let alone consider ordering one. Luckily, her eyes gravitated to the blackboard on the other side of the counter, and she saw the magic word: breakfast. She breathed a sigh of relief. "I'll have breakfast!"
I had assumed that El Salvadoreño must offer some kind of morning dish because it opens each day at 9 a.m. The weekday breakfast business hasn't really caught on yet, according to Sol, but weekend breakfast business is brisk. Even better, the restaurant serves its single breakfast special — two eggs, fried plantains, sour cream, refried beans and house-made corn tortillas — all day and evening.
It's a great breakfast. The eggs are cooked to order, the refried beans (prepared with vegetable shortening) are silky smooth, and the slightly sweet plantain slices are sautéed in olive oil until they're golden. Fold a spoonful of each of these into a soft corn tortilla (with a forkful of curtido) and you'll have a truly satisfying breakfast taco. Carol wasn't so keen on the plantains but loved everything else on her breakfast platter. "You won't find a breakfast like this at Waid's," she said brightly.
Martha wanted to taste a pupusa and a tamale, so she ordered both. We agreed that the El Salvadoran pork tamale may be one of the very best in the city. The blanket of masa is incredibly fluffy and light, wrapped around chunks of tender, long-simmered pork. Martha didn't want to get too adventurous with the soft pupusa — it looks like a pillowy flapjack — and ordered only the cheese version.
I've tasted the whole array of pupusa choices, and my favorite is the cheesy center with the tart and slightly bitter bud of the fernaldia pandurata, better known as the loroco. "It tastes a little like broccolini," Sol told me, and he was right, though it lacks that vegetable's peppery bite.
El Salvadoreño is attractively decorated — a mural of San Salvador's iconic Monumento al Divino Salvador del Mundo dominates — but the lighting is harsh. It's about as intimate as a police interrogation room. Worse, one morning while I was there, the TV monitor on the wall was tuned to The 700 Club.
The food mostly makes up for those small missteps. The carne asada, one night's dinner special, looks good in any light. An inexpensive and surprisingly tender little grilled steak, it arrives covered with sautéed onions, with beans and a little salad on the side. I loved it. El Salvadoreño doesn't offer alcohol, but some steaks taste better with a carrot shake anyway.