Hold The Fire
Salvadoran food tickles the palate without that chili sting.
Thursday, July 24, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Southern Specials: Papusas and fried yucca are just two Salvadoran treats at Migueleno.
The map of El Salvador painted on the outside wall of the Migueleno restaurant on Broadway Avenue in Seaside caused visions of tamales decked out in banana leaves to swim before my eyes.
The fact that most people are unfamiliar with Salvadoran cuisine probably explains why Migueleno has served Mexican food and 11 different seafood entrees in order to keep the business going the past 18 years. I picked up some new vocabulary words as I ordered my two Salvadoran meals: papusas ($1.95 each), chicken tamales ($1.95 each), fried yucca with chicharron (pork) ($5.95), and fried plantains ($3.50).
The pudgy papusa was four inches wide. This round tortilla-like confection was stuffed with a mixture of ground beef, corn, and cheese much like a grilled cheese sandwich, except much tastier. The papusa came with its own mild, cheesy dipping sauce, but it really didn''t need any help to make you feel like your mother just made you your favorite home style food.
The chicken tamale was wider and much lighter than its typical Mexican cousin. A generous dose of rendered lard no doubt accounts for this lightness just like it does in the best flaky piecrusts. What really struck me was how moist it was, including the chicken breast meat. Most tamales are a little dry in restaurants, because they are frozen in large quantities and then steamed to order. This sweet-tasting enchilada almost had a corn pudding consistency and made me think that it had been made that very day just for me. I speculated correctly about the banana leaves--the enchilada came perched on top of one, and it made the entire dish look picturesque.
Side dishes rarely merit mention, but Migueleno puts just as much attention into these as the main dishes. A vinegary cabbage and carrot coleslaw that has just a hint of chili bite to it offsets the heavier foods. Migueleno''s refried beans, which don''t fill half the plate, taste of pork. I suspect that the cooks used some pork bits along with good rendered lard in these beans. The serving of beans was adequate, and I had no guilt feelings about leaving any behind.
Since my dining companions had opted for Mexican food, I started my second Salvadoran meal of fried yucca and chicharron. I must admit that I had no idea what yucca was when I bit into my first deep-fried morsel. It reminded me of very light, slightly sour potatoes. I squirted some lemon juice on the rest of the yucca and it tasted even better that way, along with some salt.
On top of the yucca pieces was a mound of chicharron, the savory remains of deep-fried pork rinds. The rich chicharron-fried yucca combination got balanced out by another generous helping of tangy coleslaw. I wonder if yucca and pork is the equivalent of fish ''n'' chips in El Salvador. It certainly merits undivided attention--eat it on your second trip to Migueleno!
The beverage list offered a few items to discover as well. Negra Modelo from El Salvador was advertised, but my husband Laurent and I decided to try another beer brewed in El Salvador called Regeia ($6/bottle). Neither of us expected to see a 32-ounce bottle on the table. Described as a smooth lager on the label, Regeia reminded me of a thirst-quenching Budweiser. It went perfectly with the yucca and chicharron. My husband wished we had taken the Negra Modelo, but I wanted to go Salvadoran all the way.
This desire affected my choice of dessert, too. Another first for me, fried plantains, arrived with a generous helping of sour cream. The brown exteriors revealed yellow, tangy interiors tasting like green verging on yellow bananas. Palm oil must have given the plantains the fried-in-butter taste that felt even more decadent when I dipped them in the sour cream.
My French husband Laurent exclaimed, "These are delicious!" when he took his first bite of his enchiladas verdes ($7.95). I could taste why--the enchiladas were as feather-light as the crepes Laurent makes at home. My daughter said her carne asada ($7.95) tasted too much of lime, but I thought that would taste good with the charred exterior of the steak. Carne asada gets marinated in lime juice with salt and pepper before being grilled, so this citrus flavor certainly fails to register as a fault with me.
American families and Salvadorans filled the restaurant''s tables and bar. Each glass-topped table had a vase with fresh flowers in it and under the glass was a lace trimmed cloth touting the "best beach in Central America"--El Cuco, located on the Pacific Ocean. El Salvador''s third largest city, San Miguel, harbors this beach, and residents call themselves "Miguelenos."
Migueleno offers some fine new worlds to discover while offering an array of seafood entrees ($9.95-10.95) and Mexican dishes to dining buddies with more conventional cravings. It''s a fine way to enjoy tropical food without having to get on a plane.
1066 Broadway Ave., Seaside
Open daily 11am-9pm