The Ochoa family has introduced many locals to Salvadoran cooking as they've moved their restaurant Pupuseria La Macarena to a succession of locations over the years. At its latest spot, a snug Riverbend storefront painted as brightly as a tropical fruit stand, all that practice really shows.
Whether the apron-clad Isabela Ochoa emerges from her kitchen to present her cooking in person, her outgoing son Manny gives a tableside tutorial, or one of the waiters explains the menu using the wall-mounted photo collage of dishes and raw staples, curious guests are sure to get a primer on this easy-to-love food.
This being a pupuseria, most lessons naturally begin with the pupusa, a flat and thin but hearty cornmeal disk filled with a mix of sour cheese, beans and, usually, bits of pork. There is apparently no correct way to eat pupusas. A casual survey of the restaurant's tiny dining room reveals a broad range of attempts to roll them around their constant sidekick, the tangy, pickled cabbage slaw called curtido; one can slice them with a knife and fork or simply tear them by hand. Either way, diners dip the steaming pieces into the smooth-as-gravy refried black beans or the thin, smoky salsa that accompany every order. The kicker for me is always a smear of crema, with its thick, soft weight and understated richness.
Skipping pupusas at a pupuseria is like passing up the oysters at Casamento's, but there is plenty else to recommend. There are the Salvadoran enchiladas, which look just like Mexican tostadas — with avocado, boiled egg and grated farmer's cheese — and the seared redfish, stained with abundant seasoning and flanked by huge, head-on grilled shrimp, all ready for a dunk in the salsa. But carne asada is the unheralded great dish here. It's cut thin and ragged, like fajita meat, but it is especially tender and moist, charred just a bit at the edges and aromatically smoky.
The carne mechada, a pot roast, was a rare disappointment. Its gravy looked substantial but had no real flavor and couldn't carry the dry and bland roast. An appetizer of fried yucca heaped with a coarsely chopped salsa and fresh cilantro would have been fine if not for the topping of leathery chicharrones that proved too tough to eat.
Soups are a good bet, especially the thin, brothy black bean soup, and so are salads, like the impressive combination of greens, avocado and big, snappy-skinned, pepper-coated shrimp. The approach I like best here is to share an order of three pupusas as a first course before one of the entrees. But then, I could just as happily keep eating pupusas as my entire meal. A lot of the principal dishes reappear for weekend brunch, along with some Latin American breakfast dishes like fat, mildly sweet tamales and burritos with plantains and eggs.
Presentation and polish are well above the norm for local Latin American cafes with similar menus, though so are prices. The BYOB policy helps smooth this over at dinner, however. No matter what you're drinking, the fantastically refreshing, gorgeously dark, sweet-but-not-sugary blackberry iced tea is always worth a try.