Don’t be afraid to try the unexpected.
One day, I was really craving tacos. Not Taco Bell tacos, but real heart and soul authentic tacos. Usually, it’s easy to find a taco truck in east Las Vegas, but this specific day, there were none on my route.
As my stomach growled and I neared Jack in the Box, I noticed a restaurant that said Salvadorian and Mexican food. I had never tried Salvadorian food, but I knew that this place probably had the decent taco I was craving.
Located at the corner of Nellis and Bonanza, Esmeralda’s Café is tucked in behind a liquor store near the A&W. I walked in, and there were three charming ladies behind the counter. One was working the register and helping the few guests who were glued to the Spanish soap operas and soccer playing on the TVs. The other appeared to be doing prep work, and the older woman wearing a traditional dress was cooking on the flattop right in the open.
On the chalkboard by the register, they had a daily special that had tacos, so I placed my order. As I waited, I read through the picturesque menu. I pulled out my phone and began to look up some of the unfamiliar menu items.
I observed the older woman flattening dough with her hands and was curious what she was making. They were too thick to be tortillas, but she was putting a lot of love into them. I immediately began looking for them on the menu. Could it be the pupusa?
I typed that into my phone and discovered that these corn meal pockets of dough were filled with ingredients like cheese, pork and/or beans. I’m a huge lover of grilled cheese, and I can live off of cheese quesadillas, especially ones made with corn tortillas. Could this El Salvadorian discovery be my new grilled cheese?
Although my order was almost ready and I had been craving tacos all day, I had to try a pupusa. I added one to my order. I wanted to break into it right there in the restaurant, but had to rush home to let the dogs out.
I ran into the house, released the hounds and threw myself to the table. I unwrapped the foil and the beautiful aroma of roasted cornmeal brought a smile to my face. As I tore off a piece, the cheese strung for miles. Finally, the first bite…oh my heavens! Where have you been all my life?
The salty, gooey cheese and the pillowy, earthy corn meal dough were love at first bite. I inhaled the pupusa and was craving another. I should have ordered two because I wasn’t as excited about the taco that I had been craving all day. But it, too, hit the spot.
The next day after work, I drove straight to Esmeralda’s. The same ladies were there and they recognized me right away. I asked them about this magical pocket of cheese, and she graciously explained to me how they were made.
First, they make a dough using masa harina (just like you would for a tortilla). Then, you form it into a ball, press a dent in the center and fill it with your filling of choice. Using your hands, you flatten the dough around the filling and shape it into a saucer. A few minutes on the flattop, and heaven is ready.
I ordered three more pupusas that day – cheese, beans and chicharrón. I always thought chicharrón were pork rinds, but in El Salvador, it means shredded cooked pork mixed with salsa.
They also serve pupusas with fermented coleslaw called curtido. It was similar in taste to Korean kimchi.
I lived by Esmeralda’s on and off for eight years and only recently tried it. It’s a shame that I overlooked it all these years, and it’s proof that you don’t have to have a beautiful storefront or a great location in a glitzy Vegas hotel to be an amazing restaurant.
Now, I’ve moved about 30 minutes away and I miss the pupusas and the lovely ladies who are so friendly. While I still visit every now and then, it’s not enough to cure my cravings…so I decided to try to make these on my own.
My first attempt was pretty ugly. I discovered that my dough was too dry. A little more water and after about 4 tries of patting out the dough, I got the hang of it.
As with all of my recipes, I added my own Zestuous twist, so it’s not quite the traditional version. I hope you give this recipe a try…or look in the phone book and see if you have an El Salvadorian restaurant nearby. You don’t have to go far to travel the world.
- 2 cups masa harina
- 1 ½ - 1 ¾ cups warm water
- ½ tsp. salt
In a large bowl, mix the masa, salt and 1 ½ cups water together with your hands to make a dough.
Dump the dough onto the counter. If you press it and it cracks, you need to knead in more water.
You’ll know you have enough water when you press it and it looks smooth.
Break off a handful of dough and roll it into a ball.
Slightly flatten the ball and make an indention in the dough.
Add about a tablespoon of filling.
Fold the dough like a taco and press together.
Fold in the opposite ends and press together.
Set the dough on the counter and press the dough together to cover the filling.
Carefully flatten it out into a ¼-inch thick disc. Don’t press too hard or the filling will poke through the dough.
Continue with the remaining dough.
Heat a skillet or griddle over medium to medium-high heat. Place pupusas on the skillet in a single layer. Cook for 5 minutes, until brown.
Flip. Continue cooking 5 more minutes.
Remove from skillet and cook remaining pupusas.
Serve with a side of curtido.
If you prefer a plain cheese pupusa, try this variety.
- 1 cup shredded pepperjack cheese
- ½ cup cotija cheese
Combine the cheese in a medium bowl and use as a filling for pupusas.
Chicharrón is pork that is cooked, shredded and mixed with vegetables. Traditionally, green pepper is used, but I am in love with Hatch green chiles, so I used those instead.
- 1 lb. pork butt roast
- 1 cup water
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 tsp. salt
- 8 cherry tomatoes
- 1/4 of an onion
- 1 tablespoon canned green chiles
- 1 cup grated pepperjack cheese
- ¼ cup cotija cheese
Chop the pork into 1-2-inch cubes
Add the pork, water, garlic and salt into a large pot. Cook over medium heat for 30 minutes.
While the pork is cooking, prepare the salsa.
In a food processor, chop the tomatoes and onion.
Place the salsa into a large bowl and add the green chiles. Stir to combine.
Back on the stove, turn the heat to medium-high for 10 minutes to allow the liquid to boil off.
Reduce the heat back to medium and cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes to brown the fat.
Place the meat in a food processor.
Pulse 8-10 times to chop the meat.
Add the chopped meat to the salsa bowl along with the cheeses and mix with your hands.
Use the prepared chicharrón as filling for pupusas.
This is an optional side item often served with pupusas. This is not quite a traditional recipe. I added sriracha for heat. I like to grab a pinch of curtido with my fingers and eat it on top of my pupusa.
- 3 cups water
- 1 8-oz. bag shredded cabbage
- 2 tablespoons lime juice (juice of one lime)
- 1 tablespoon sriracha
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tsp. sugar
- ½ tsp. salt
- ¼ cup water
- ½ cup grated carrot
- ¼ cup grated onion
Place the water in a microwave-safe pitcher and microwave for 3 minutes. Place the cabbage in a large bowl and pour the water on top. Let it rest for 3 minutes.
Drain the water from the cabbage using a colander.
In the bowl, whisk together the lime juice, sriracha, olive oil, sugar, salt and water.
Place the cabbage back in the bowl and mix in the carrots and onion.
Pour the mixture into a Ziploc bag. Press out the air and seal so the cabbage ferments in the liquid. The longer it sits, the better the flavors will be.
Serve alongside the pupusas.