If you're unfamiliar with Salvadoran cuisine but want to get acquainted, El Petate in Houston's East End is a perfect place to get started. The broad front porch of the bright blue building is perfect for relaxing with a plate of pupusas and a beer in the evenings, to watch the traffic on Canal trundle past. But I prefer eating inside, where it feels like you're sitting down in a family's home for a home-cooked meal.
When I was younger, pupusas—round discs of masa stuffed with cheese, refried beans, meat, or a combination thereof—were a novelty in Houston, where Mexican food and Tex-Mex reigned supreme. Discs of masa were reserved for making gorditas, then topping them with beans, lettuce, crema, perhaps some pork or beef. I'd never seen them stuffed before eating my first pupusa at El Pupusodromo 2002, upon returning to Houston after four years away at college.
By this time, the Salvadoran population in Houston had begun to explode. Driven by increased migration following a series of natural disasters and a brutal civil war that lasted 12 years and killed more than 75,000 people in Central America's smallest country, Salvadorans were discovering that Houston was as welcoming as Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington D.C.—the three U.S. cities with the highest concentration of Salvadoran immigrants—but far less expensive. Today, one in every five Salvadorans lives in the United States. Half of those live in Texas, where Salvadorans are now the sixth-largest immigrant population.
But they brought with them more than just pupusas.
There's also curtido, the pickled cabbage-and-carrot condiment that—like pupusas—is becoming so popular in Houston's big melting pot that it's often found alongside tacos and other Mexican fare at food trucks and restaurants alike. The curtido has a bright, refreshing tanginess to it that offsets the richness of Salvadoran cuisine, which makes heavy use of ingredients such as refried beans, lard, cheese, cream, and fatty meats.
In El Petate—as with most other Salvadoran restaurants—the curtido is served in a communal jar. Help yourself; just don't double-dip with your own utensils. That's what the curtido-only tongs or spoons are for. The curtido is equally fine with pupusas or tamales, but don't expect the tamales to be like the ones you buy from Alamo Tamales at Christmas every year.
The tamales at El Petate are wrapped in banana leaves, not corn husks, and the masa within is far finer and silkier than your average Mexican tamale. The delicate Salvadoran tamale falls apart at the touch of a fork, only holding its form thanks to the shiny green leaves that wrap tightly around it. If you get a tamal de elote, however, you'll find something more familiar on your plate. But although the corn husk and masa resemble a traditional Mexican tamale, the sweet corn filling is more dessert than dinner.
If you can't decide what to try off El Petate's menu—and I frequently can't—just go with one of the three generous sampler platters. At $8 to $9 each, you'll get more than enough to fill you up. Two of the plates come with your choice of two pupusas each; the sides are filled out by tamales, pastelitos (El Salvador's deep-fried version of an empanada), refried beans, crema, fried plantains, and more. The plates even come with dessert, but beware.
In Salvadoran restaurants, two of the most popular dessert items are empanadas and quesadillas. This can be confusing to your average Houstonian (like me) who's familiar with those words under different conditions. Quesadillas in El Salvador are sweet, spongy cakes made with obscene amounts of butter, sugar, and eggs. Empanadas—my favorite—are plaintains that have been griddled, mushed into a loose paste, stuffed with sweet cream, then griddled once more to give the exterior a glorious, caramelized crunch.
The empanadas are so intensely sweet that I can barely eat one, but my favorite sampler platter at El Petate always comes with two, and the friendly waitress always tries her hardest to goad me into finishing it all off. Just like eating at home.