Nestor Lopez, chef at the Salvadoran restaurant Gobble This in Old Town, offers a case study on how to steer a restaurant through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lopez adapts to supply chain disruptions by tweaking his menu throughout the week. One day, he’ll serve shrimp ceviche in a plastic cup crowned with guacamole and chips. The next, he’ll grill carne asada for tacos. If necessary, he’ll expand his culinary purview beyond the borders of El Salvador. A native of Los Angeles, he’s recently been offering LA-style hot dogs wrapped in jalapeño bacon and dressed with spicy mayonnaise under a pile of diced tomatoes, onions and cucumbers.
And when the hours change due to a lack of supplies, Lopez will spread the word through his frequently updated Facebook page.
It’s the kind of agility you need to keep a place running these days, the kind Lopez has excelled at while growing Gobble This from a food truck to a brick-and-mortar restaurant in a narrow adobe building on San Felipe just east of Old Town Plaza. There’s a back entrance next to a parking lot near the Albuquerque Museum that provides a convenient place to wait for your takeout order.
The restaurant’s name is a nod to the turkey that, in pre-pandemic times, showed up in its sandwiches, tacos and pupusas, the savory masa cakes that are the national dish of El Salvador. For now, the full menu is not available. That means you can’t order the pulled turkey in tomato mole on a bolillo roll or the pastelitos, Salvadoran empanadas stuffed with meat and vegetables.
But you can get one of the best deals in town: a dozen green chile and cheese pupusas with thick-cut yucca fries for $25. The pupusas are piled in an aluminum pan with radish and cucumber slices and curtido, a lightly fermented cabbage relish common in Salvadoran cuisine.
The pan kept the food hot, even for a 20-minute drive home. Mottled brown from the grill and caramelized where the cheese leaked out, the pupusas were exceptional. Lopez’s preparation strikes a balance between the masa layer and the filling so that one doesn’t overwhelm the other. The cakes are very moist, no small feat when working with cornmeal. You could subsist off these for days, even without the meaty, chewy yucca fries that are perfect for sopping up the smooth and mildly hot salsa de tomate.
While the pupusa box is the mainstay of the Gobble This’ takeout menu, there’s usually some type of taco option available. The day I ordered, it was three carnitas tacos for $11.95. The corn tortillas were doubled up and filled to overflowing with pulled pork. The heat from the pork was assertive enough to cut through the cooling mound of guacamole with cilantro atop each taco. You want to eat these as soon as possible, as the tortillas start to get soggy in about 15 minutes. The crispy, flaky and well-seasoned tortilla chips accompanying the tacos were some of the best I’ve ever had.
Elote ($5), corn on the cob on a stick, is also available most days. By the time I got home and peeled the foil away from it, the sour cream, cojita cheese and chile powder dusting had melded together and sunk down into the corn. Appearance aside, it was a successful preparation of the increasingly ubiquitous street food, with plenty of juice and a fitting balance of sweet and spicy flavors.
Chef Lopez accepts cash or Venmo for takeout. Ordering requires patience, as he is often too busy to answer the phone or respond to a text. He will get back to you eventually – my initial text was answered in a few minutes. While I waited for my food in the parking lot on a Friday evening, I could hear the phone ringing repeatedly in the kitchen where Lopez was working. Despite the interruptions, the chef eventually emerged from the back entrance cradling my order in his arms, his dog tagging along behind him.
There are worse ways to ride out the pandemic than with a pan full of pupusas. Thanks to chef Lopez and all the local restaurateurs for keeping their eateries going in these trying times.