Comida Central Why are Salvadoran and Mexican cuisines forever entwined?

Export Opinion: Pupusas aside, Reyna and Nicolas Guardado say there are good reasons few Salvadoran dishes make the trip north.
Darrow Montgomery

The two words are as inseparable as cheeseburger and fries, Woodward and Bernstein, cats and Satan. I’m talking about Salvadoran and Mexican, cuisines that, in many local Latin American eateries, always seem to be tied at the hip.

This splicing of cultures has always struck me as strange given that, by one estimate, Salvadorans number as many as half a million in the region. Couldn’t an unadulterated Salvadoran restaurant stay afloat just by serving its own? Or more to the point, don’t Salvadorans want to introduce their national cuisine—beyond the pupusa, that is—to an American public that has already embraced many forms of ethnic cooking, from Ethiopian to Japanese?

I guess I’d always assumed this culinary insecurity had to do with economics. If a Salvadoran restaurateur wanted to help ensure success, all he had to do was add a few Mexican plates, and Americans would readily walk into the joint no matter how many wacky dishes shared space on the menu.

Salvadoran native Jorge Chicas is the culinary director for special projects with José Andrés’ THINKfoodGROUP, and, like me, he has always chalked up this Hispanic Hydra to business practices. “It makes more sense to embrace Salvadoran and Mexican [food],” Chicas says. “It’s more appealing than Salvadoran.” Fellow Salvadoran José Velazquez, chef and co-owner of Moroni & Brother’s pizzeria, pretty much agrees, though he doesn’t see much difference between the two cuisines. “They’re almost the same,” he says.

These explanations don’t satisfy me. Yeah, sure, American dining history is full of stories about immigrants altering their recipes to appease our palates. Maybe they had to tamp down the heat (like with Indian curries) or maybe they incorporated ingredients not found back in the mother country (like Mexicans in Texas). But few, if any, ethnic cuisines have had to borrow outright from another culture to gain acceptance in America.

It wasn’t until I spoke with Nicolas and Reyna Guardado, co-owners of Guardado’s in Bethesda, that the fog started to lift on this Salvadoran-Mexican mystery. “We don’t have an idea what the [typical] dishes are in Salvador, to tell you the truth, because we [were] so poor,” says Reyna, front-of-the-house manager at the tapas restaurant.

During the ’80s, the brutal Salvadoran civil war drove hundreds of thousands of residents to the United States. Most of these refugees, it seems, were poor; they had little reason or opportunity to sample food outside the dishes they prepared themselves, often from products on their own farms. “Ninety percent of the Salvadorans that are in the [D.C.] area…are from the rural [population],” Reyna guesses.

Reyna is the anomaly. Her father was a military police officer who could occasionally take his daughter to a big-city restaurant or even to the Pollo Campero in San Salvador, which she says routinely had lines snaking around the building. Her husband’s story, however, is far more common. Nicolas was a young farmer who “didn’t know how to cook even one egg” when he arrived here in 1983, he says.

Both Velazquez and Chicas can relate. Velazquez grew up on a farm, “with the cows, horse, pig, and chickens,” he says. Chicas spent summers working on his family’s farm, as well. None of the chefs could rattle off a comprehensive list of dishes that define Salvadoran cuisine. Chicas is the closest thing to an authority, and he could name only a handful of dishes, most of them the sweet-based treats that his grandmother once made, like yuca fritters in syrup called nuegados.

The rural Salvadoran diet, argues Reyna Guardado, is predictable and heavy on starches. Pupusas, those cornmeal crepes filled with cheese or meat (or both), are a routine part of every meal. Lunch might also include a plate of black beans and rice; dinner could be a simple reheating of those same black beans, with the addition of homemade cheese. “We eat a lot of potatoes,” Reyna adds.

This kind of subsistence diet doesn’t exactly provide a solid foundation for a Salvadoran restaurant in America, but the humble food does offer a fringe benefit for budding Latin American chefs in the United States: It’s easy to leave behind. Nicolas Guardado, Chicas, and Velazquez all became cooks by learning the cuisines of countries other than their own.

Velazquez landed in D.C. in 1991 and began working as a dishwasher at Pizzeria Paradiso, Ruth Gresser’s joint near Dupont Circle. Over the years, Velazquez rose through the ranks to become Gresser’s kitchen manager at the Georgetown location, where he taught new hires how to make Italian pies. Guardado followed a much harder path, taking odd jobs for years before landing a gig as a salad maker at Andrés’ downtown Jaleo. Andrés decided the Salvadoran would make a good sous chef and began training him in the art of Spanish tapas, which Guardado would master well enough to earn the position of head chef at the Jaleo in Bethesda.

Of the three chefs, Chicas has probably studied more cuisines than the other two combined. His training has taken him around the Mediterranean and into the classrooms at L’Academie de Cuisine. Since arriving in America in 1986, Chicas has enjoyed a rather high-profile career as executive chef and partner with Capital Restaurant Concepts (Paolo’s, Georgia Brown’s, Old Glory) and as head chef at Zaytinya, Andrés monolithic meze operation in Penn Quarter.

But now as THINKfoodGROUP’s culinary director of special projects, Chicas is no longer on the front lines, pushing line cooks to turn out dozens of dishes a night like Guardado and Velazquez are. Yet like his fellow countrymen, Chicas often thinks about getting to know a cuisine that mostly passed him by as a youth. It may be the only way for Salvadorans to break this Mexican chokehold on their restaurants.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that these chefs should abandon their focus on foreign cuisines and push for full-time Salvadoran restaurants. I have, in fact, admired much of the work all three have done. Velazquez’s pizzas at Moroni & Brother’s are not mere replicas of Gresser’s pies; the crust is slightly sweeter, the sauce a little brighter. Likewise, Guardado’s concise menu of Spanish tapas often surpasses his mentor’s, at least in terms of homeyness, consistency, and price.

But the interesting thing is, both Velazquez and Guardado include Salvadoran food on their menus. They do so, they say, because there’s demand, which makes me think D.C. would be happy to support a full-on Salvadoran eatery. And who better to build one than THINKfoodGROUP? The company, after all, has already funded research missions to Mexico (Oyamel) and the Mediterranean (Zaytinya) to start restaurants. Why not investigate El Salvador to bring the country’s full menu to life in the States?

“I’d love to be able to do that one day,” Chicas says. “With time, you never know.”

Moroni & Brother's: 4811 Georgia Ave. NW, (202) 829-2090.

Guardado's: 4918 Del Ray Ave., Bethesda, (301) 986-4920.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.

Our Readers Say

I have tried Salvadoran food and it's didn't taste good to me. I don't like nothing about El Salvador or it's culture. Give me Caribbean food from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico anytime. Their food taste good!
If Salvadorans in the restaurant business are catering to North Americans, they will advertise their restaurant as being mexican and include some Salvadoran specialties for Salvadoran customers and adverturous norteamericanos. They know that we are familair with Mexican food and generally like it. This makes good business sense. But this article brings up a good point I've never seen before and believe to be completely true. Most Salvadorans in the DC area are from quite poor, rural families. Consequently, they aren't going to restaurants and knowing what is considered typical Salavdoran food. Yet they certainly know typical family recipes, like yuca con chicharrón, sopa de camarones, and of course pupusas. Also, Salavadoran tortillas are not machine-made like Mexican ones and are fatter, more substantial. Those of you who haven't tried Salvadoran food will be pleasantly surprised. Most of those restaurant owners have long-time restaurant experience, cooking, doing food prep, washing dishes, etc and have made their way up to being small business owners. Lo mejor de Centroamérica, son ellos.
On the other hand, Salvadorans tell me that there are Peruvian-style chicken joints all over El Salvado, just like KFC isn't limited to Kentucky. El Salvador has been globalized, too.

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