Built to last: El Papaturro upholds El Salvador’s remarkable culinary reputation

El Papaturro’s Happy Plate, a combination dish of a pupusa, an empanada, plantains and yuca fries. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Albuquerque is in the midst of a boom in Central and South American restaurants. In the past few years, the Costa Rican restaurant Buen Provecho opened at El Vado Motel, Cacho’s Venezuelan Bistro launched at Sawmill Market and Tio David’s Peruvian Flavor started up in Nob Hill.

The new spots join Guava Tree Café, Gobble This, Pollito Con Papas and Ajiaco Colombian Bistro in making pupusas, arepas and yuca fries familiar to local diners.

Like New Mexican food, Central and South American cuisine developed from a mix of Spanish and indigenous ingredients and traditions. The names on the menu are familiar; the preparation and presentation less so.

At El Papaturro, a 5-year-old Salvadoran restaurant in the North Valley, a tamale arrives not in a corn husk but a banana leaf. Unwrapping it reveals a light, almost fluffy sleeve of steamed masa, a far cry from the crumbly, lardy filling found in New Mexican tamales.

Salvadoran-born Patricia Martinez and her husband, Noe, named El Papaturro for a tree native to Mexico and Central America. The restaurant is open from morning to night six days a week in a brightly stuccoed shopping center at Osuna and Fourth NW.

Inside, booths line the two walls of the midsized dining room around a central area of tables and chairs spread apart for social distancing. It’s a clean, no-frills space with a few flourishes such as the blue-and-white Salvadoran flag hung on the wall by the entrance.

During a recent weekday lunch rush, several parties were dining in, and there was a steady procession of people arriving to get takeout orders. One server worked the room, expertly pivoting between speaking Spanish and English depending on the party. She told me that business has picked up considerably since restrictions on indoor dining were relaxed.

The Salvadoran Tamal at El Papaturro is filled with shredded chicken and potatoes in a sleeve of masa. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

As is common with restaurants of this genre, the laminated menus are decorated brightly with pictures of the food. Appetizers offer some of the greatest hits of Salvadoran cuisine, such as tamales, fried yucca and empanadas, all costing around $5 or less. The aforementioned Salvadoran Tamal ($3) is filled with shredded white chicken meat and potatoes. It’s redolent of chicken flavor and picks up some zing and color from the two accompanying bottles of salsa: a mild, vinegary tomato-based one and a blazing green chile sauce.

Salvadorans have been making pupusas – corn cakes filled with cheese and beans and whatever else is available – for more than a millennium. El Papaturro’s versions are terrific, crisp and heavy with ingredients. At $2.75 each, they’re an excellent value. My favorite was the mixed version, with an optimal balance of pork, beans and cheese. In the spinach and cheese version I ordered, cheese had leaked out of one edge and turned crisp up on the grill. Whether that was intentional or not, it was delicious. The pupusas come with a jar of curtido, a cabbage slaw that adds crunch and tang, and two bottles of sauce.

A separate menu lists traditional Salvadoran meals, mostly in the $10-$15 range and based on steak, chicken wings, salmon and shrimp. Two of the plates offer samplers of menu items. The first, the El Papaturro Dish ($12.50), with a pupusa, beans, eggs and sliced plantains, is more fitting for breakfast. The Platillo Feliz, or Happy Plate ($14.99), comes with a pupusa, an empanada filled with green beans, yuca fries, two pieces of plantains and a plantain empenada. It’s an appetizer, meal and dessert in one plate.

Both the empanada and the yuca fries were nicely done, the latter cut into thick blocks that fried up a little sweeter and denser than potato fries. Plantains are prepared Salvadoran style, sliced down the middle and fried in a skillet with vanilla and cinnamon. El Papaturro’s version was well-caramelized over a buttery core. The plantain empanada is made with mashed plantains filled with a creamy paste of milk, sugar, vanilla and cornstarch. The whole thing gets fried until it comes out looking like a doughnut. It was very good, although when served in combination with the plantains, it makes for a lot of starch.

El Papaturros Salad Drink is actually made from a mix of tropical fruit juices. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Standing out among the usual assortment of tropical drinks such as horchata and cantaloupe agua fresca was something called a Salad Drink ($3.50). The name had me picturing a cup full of lettuce juice, but the drink is made with pineapple, apple, and two fruits native to El Salvador: marañon, the fruit of the cashew tree that resembles an apple, and the apricot-like mamey. Presented in a tall glass filled with crushed ice and diced fruit, it tastes like a less syrupy version of the liquid in fruit cocktail.

Most of the menu is gluten-free, including the pupusas, and there are several vegetarian options.

Service was stellar. All the food came out within 10 minutes.

El Salvador has established a remarkable culinary reputation, especially for such a small country. El Papaturro upholds that reputation with its welcoming vibe and accessible menu. Like its namesake tree, it’s built to last.

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