Sunday, June 22, 2008


Around one o'clock this afternoon, I was sitting around working on another sudoku when I realized that I was starving. My wife suggested going to Sweet Sunset Bakery, which was fine by me because they make great pupusas (on Saturday and Sunday only) and I hadn't visited with César Yong, baker extraordinaire, partner and frontman, in a long time.

A pupusa is essentially a filled tortilla, made by flattening a ball of masa into a disk, placing some stuffing in the middle of the disk, folding it over on itself, and patting it back out into a thick disk with outer layers of masa sandwiching the filling. Or, if you're a beginner like me, you flatten two balls of masa into tortillas, place the filling in between, and crimp the edges. This is strictly a déclassé method and not one to brag on in public.

Watching an experienced cook make pupusas is a fascinating experience, one that I first encountered at the Peruvian restaurant Pollos Inka in Herndon in the early 1990s. It only takes one try at patting out balls of masa into tortillas to fully appreciate the skill required. Many was the morning that I would bicycle over to the local taqueria (called imaginatively enough La Taqueria) when I lived in Texas, surely to eat, but I think also to marvel at the dexterity of Abuela Hernández as she made tortilla after tortilla in a rhythmic, almost trancelike state.

As an aside, she always took good care of me, probably because I was a young kid, the only gringo in the joint, and obviously fascinated by her skill. My dozen tortillas cost a dollar and rarely were there fewer than 14 in the wrapper. And there was always a big chunk of bacon in my frijoles alla charra for lunch.

Some ten years later, after my first initiation to pupusas at a Peruvian restaurant, I mistakenly thought for years that the dish was one of Peruvian invention. While I was researching the history of Venezuelan arepas (a quasi-gordita that that has been split and filled after cooking, ham biscuit style), I discovered that while Nicaraguans, Colombians, and Peruvians all make varying styles of pupusas, pupusas are perhaps the defining dish of Salvadorean cuisine.

Pupusas, after being cooked on the comal like a tortilla, are served with a mild white cabbage slaw called curtido (almost a fresh sauerkraut sans the salt) and a thin tomato sauce. Pupusas are not knife and fork material—dig in with your fingers.

Although pupusas can be stuffed with just about any filling, the most traditional are queso, frijoles, chicharrón (pork rind/skin/bacon), revuelta (a mix of everything), and my favorite, loroco y queso. Loroco is the bud of a Central American vine and reminds me a bit of broccoli in flavor.

And by the way, César and his partner are great bakers. To give credit where it is due however, I've seen César's wife Isabel in the back making the pupusas.

Sweet Sunset Bakery
37 W. Jubal Early Drive
Winchester, VA 22601

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