Hugo Gutierrez Jr. can make a pupusa, but unless it’s Wednesday or Thursday, when he takes over the cooking at Pupuseria Las Delicias, he leaves them to “the professional,” Ceci Roman, an eight-year veteran of his restaurant.
“Most of the time it’s a woman who makes the pupusas,” he says. Gutierrez, who’s 32, is an exception: he grew up making the thick, stuffed, griddled tortillas on Saturdays during soccer matches near the lake at Montrose. (His father was a professional soccer player in Guatemala, and his uncle founded the local intramural Central American Soccer League.) In Gutierrez’s youth the family had the lakefront pupusa trade locked up. “At that time, like 15 years ago, we used to be the only ones there,” he says. “In one day you can make $2,000.”
A pupusa starts out as a fistful of cornmeal mixed with water. The cook makes a pocket in the masa and fills it with a schmear of beans, cheese, pork, or a combination of all three–for a pupusa revuelta–and slaps it back and forth until it flattens into a thick discus. Then it’s tossed onto a hot griddle, where it’s cooked a few minutes to a side. On the good ones a bit of the filling oozes from the edge and crisps up. Pupusas are served with a side of curtido, a vinegary coleslaw, and some thin red or green salsa. “We put the cabbage on top,” says Gutierrez. “And we just fold it like a taco and eat it like that.” Simple, nutritious, filling, and portable–though they’re best eaten right off the griddle–pupusas digest at the same satisfyingly sluggish metabolic rate as a slice of pizza.
The national dish of El Salvador, pupusas are honored there every November 13 with a holiday, Dia Nacional de la Pupusa, that involves academic lectures on, say, their meaning as Salvadoran cultural identifiers or their pre-Hispanic origins among the indigenous Pipil tribe. But there are less sober expressions of appreciation as well–parades, music, dancing, and of course pupusa eating. Pupuserias large and small can be found in most Central American countries and wherever Salvadorans land–the world’s largest pupusa was constructed in LA earlier this summer. But they’re not always treated so reverently–the word pupusa is also slang for vagina, which can make for some bad double entendres. “Sometimes the people come in and talk to the waitresses like second graders,” says Gutierrez.
Nine years ago, when he and his first wife, a Salvadoran, had their first child, they decided to capitalize on the business their family had built up at the lakefront. The cramped ten-table space they opened at 4911 N. Western in Lincoln Square also served Guatemalan food: tamales; their smaller cousins, chuchitos; taquitos; and dobladas, tortillas filled with meat and vegetables, folded, and fried. But the focus was pupusas, with an array of fillings beyond the usual–chicharron, chorizo, chile and cheese, ham and cheese, fish, chicken, shrimp, zucchini, the herb chipilin, the loroco flower blossom. On Sunday nights people crowded into the tiny space to sing karaoke to Central American pop. In 2003 Gutierrez threw a pupusa festival in the adjoining church parking lot.
In August a larger space opened up on Montrose in Albany Park, in a part of the neighborhood packed with Central Americans. Gutierrez happened to drive by just as the rental sign was being hung and snapped it up. He took the opportunity to expand his menu too, adding fruit drinks, chicken soup, and atole de platano, a thick, sweet drink made from plantains, similar to the more common corn version, atole de elote. On Fridays there’s a special of chow mein, which is particularly popular in Guatemala. He’s also added the option of pupusas made with rice flour, which gives them a chewier texture and a milder flavor that puts the focus on what’s inside. And then there’s the supersize pupusa loca–a seven-incher stuffed with the customer’s choice of five fillings. The loca’s $5; all other pupusas run between $1.75 and $2.50.
After an early September opening, Gutierrez, his second wife, Emilia, and his Salvadoran kitchen staff were ready to celebrate Central American Independence Day, which was marked on the 15th with a parade down Montrose. “They pass right in front of the restaurant,” he says. “And it stops over there on Kimball, so everybody came in and had a good time until two in the morning.”
Pupuseria Las Delicias
3300 W. Montrose, 773-267-5346
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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Hugo Gutierrez Jr. with pupusas and curtido photo by A. Jackson.