Satisfying Salvadoran Food
El Papaturro makes mouthwatering Central American fare
For not an insignificant chapter of my life, one of my go-to meals at home was a fried egg, black beans and fried plantains—all accompanied by plenty of hot sauce. I don’t know where I originally got the idea to start making this very Central American breakfast for myself, but it sustained me through at least several months of post-college, semi-employed existence. This remains one of my favorite comfort meals when it’s rent week and I’m too hungry and tired to come up with something new.
I say all this, because it might explain some of why I love El Papaturro so much. This Salvadoran restaurant in the North Valley serves a variation on my comfort meal as their signature lunch special, and it tastes a whole lot better than when I make it.
The small restaurant lives in a shopping center on Fourth Street, just off Osuna. It looks almost like a diner inside with its brightly colored booths lining both walls. But there’s soccer on TV, a Spanish radio station playing and a freezer full of paletas by the cash register. The decor is spare inside and there are several different kinds of hot sauce next to the salt and pepper shakers on every table. It reminds me of some of the nondescript, largely immigrant-run restaurants in Chicago that serve mountains of food to cab drivers and bike messengers who come through at odd hours. Without fail, those places are always delicious.
I came to El Papaturro for lunch at 1pm on a Wednesday and it was fairly quiet—just a few other tables with people having business lunches. The waiter brought me a menu and then went to tend to the other customers, switching fluidly from English to Spanish. Scanning the menu made my mouth start watering instantly: fried yucca, pupusas made with quesillo, huge tamales wrapped in banana leaves. These are things I want to eat pretty much all of the time. I perused the menu insert of lunch specials and landed on the above-mentioned El Papaturro plate: a papusa, refried black beans, two fried eggs, fried plantains and a side of curtido, a vinegary, lightly pickled slaw. This generous meal costs $10.99 and could pretty easily feed two normally hungry people or one famished food editor. I also ordered a pineapple agua fresca ($2.29), which came in approximately a gallon-sized cup with crushed ice. During cooler months I might have gone for the mariscada (a mixed seafood soup, $14.99), which looked fantastic.
My food came out quickly, accompanied by a big bottle of unlabeled red sauce. “Is this y’all’s hot sauce?” I asked the waiter. “No, it’s just tomato sauce… I can bring you more hot sauce, though, if you want.” I demurred, pretty happy with the El Yucateco hot sauces at the table that bore the exciting guarantee “You get more habañero.” The clearly homemade tomato sauce that came from the kitchen was thinner than ketchup but not as sweet. It tasted good on everything, but especially soaked up in the pupusa.
The papusa I went for was filled with beans and cheese—you can get them filled with pork and rice, spinach and cheese, only cheese, or with cheese and loroco, an herb commonly used in Salvadoran cooking. This was crispy from the griddle on the outside and melty-starchy inside. Heaven. Can we officially declare pupusas the best possible drunk food?
The refried beans, fried plantain and fried eggs rounded out the meal to make a hearty lunch that practically demands a digesting nap afterwards. Smother everything in tomato and some hot sauce to really make yourself happy. The curtido is a nice note of crisp freshness alongside the delicious but heavy rest of the meal. This is made up of shredded cabbage, carrots and onion all marinated in a lightly spicy vinegar brine, and it seems that it comes as a side with every meal on the menu.
On a second visit to El Papaturro, I brought a friend along with me for dinner. As neither of us was starving, we decided to split a couple chicken tamales ($1.99 each) and the platillo feliz ($11.99), a sampler of several of their appetizers (one pupusa, one pastel, one empanada, curtido, some fried yucca and plantain). The tamales, which came steaming hot in their banana leaf wrappers, were cooked to a soft spoonbread texture with tender chicken and a sliver of yucca in the center. They reminded me of the giant, mole-soaked tamales I ate by the score at markets in Oaxaca. They were delicious, and I could have eaten about five more of them. Next time I visit, I’ll definitely be trying the plain corn tamales ($2.99 each) that are fried in olive oil and served with sour cream. Yum.
Everything on the platillo feliz (“happy plate”) was similarly tasty, but perhaps not the best choice for those who don’t like mixing their sweet with their savory. The fried empanada was filled with potatoes and carrots and tasted very much like an Indian samosa, and was especially good with tomato sauce. The fried yucca, perhaps my favorite of the fried vegetable category, was crispy without being overly greasy. I didn’t love the pastel—a fried doughnut filled with mashed plantain and coated with powdered sugar—but I am guilty of being one of those aforementioned people who don’t like mixing the sweet with the savory. As a dessert, I probably would have devoured that thing.
It was a reader tip that sent me to El Papaturro in the first place (send me your recommendations, folks! I do actually read them), and I’m very glad that that person took the time to suggest it—the place is a bit outside of my orbit up in the North Valley, so I likely wouldn’t have stumbled across it otherwise. Stepping outside of your usual cuisine or usual geographic radius can sometimes yield great results, and this was definitely one of those times. I’ll be coming back here often, and bringing hungry friends.
6601 Fourth Street NW
Hours: Mon closed Tue-Sat 9am-8pm Sun 10am-5pm