While not exactly the most intamate setting, the warm yellow-orange glow from the El Chalate windows (and the faint smell of frying corn masa) on this particularly dark section of East Colfax was too much to resist. We took respective deep breaths, yanked the babies out of their peaceful dream-states and triumphantly entered into the relative chaos of El Chalate where happily, there were more than a few rambunctious kids running circles around the place.
No longer are rowdy rugrats a negative for our restaurant choice (though they never really were). I have quickly learned that the best way to make it seem like I know how to properly parent my kids is going somewhere where there are much more obnoxious children already creating mayhem. But it really wasn't all that bad--just a typical scene for a family-friendly restaurant--and while there was a lot of running, there wasn't any screaming. We settled in to the far corner and immediately got to work ordering.
I don't know much about El Salvador as a country save what I learned in undergraduate Latin American Studies classes (think a failed US-backed-government-turned-decade-long-civil-war--sound familiar?). I didn't know, for example, that El Chalate is short for Chalatenango, a municipality in the northern part of El Salvador. I also learned from looking up on the plaque situated above our table that in the Chalatenango municipality is at least one somewhat nice-looking place to swim, on a river named Tamulasco.
What I don't know or have forgotten about El Salvador's history and geography, I more than make up for by a passionate love for its pupusas.
Pupusas are one of the earth's really good foods, and I love everything about them: fried dough stuffed with beautiful chicharrones, or beans, or zucchini-- and of course cheese. And while the fried and chicharron parts are certainly the main reasons I love pupusas, it is the succulent Salvadorean slaw that balances all that gooey cheese and greasy masa, really making the dish stand out. Add in the sweet, runny salsa to cut through more of that good old grease and you will see why there is little you wouldn't do for a plate of pupusas.
The pupusas at El Chalate--at least on that particular winter night--were good, but not great. The dough was nicely cooked, with little burnt edges and a nice crispy outer layer while staying soft and chewy on the inside. The slaw and the salsa were equally up to par. It was the fillings I wasn't feeling--even the chicharrones. Everything tasted a little old.
Moving on. Fried yuca is a Salvadorean staple and I was thrilled to see it on the menu, not only in its standard form, but also covered in little fried fish. At El Chalate they called these fish "chambolitas". I am not sure what those are exactly (anyone that can clarify please help) but a friend from El Salvador said they probably mean "chimbolos", which I understood to be small minnow-like fish a lot like "charales" of Mexico's Lake Patzcuaro. But that friend also said another name for "chimbolo" is "pepesca", which are little sardines. So confusing.
In the end it seems like a case of, "You say chambolita, I say chimbolo." Semantics aside, these little whole-fried fish are wonderfully crunchy, fishy and along with the ubiquitous slaw and a sweet tomatillo salsa--were perfect with the starchy, thick-cut yuca which soaked up all the flavors well.
We also had a simple beef caldo that is worth mentioning because of its richly flavored broth and the welcome warmth of its steam and the soft vegetables on that frigid night. We slurped it all down between my wife and I and even sucked on a few of the bones.
The real winner of the night, however, were the banana empanadas. Fried banana desserts are a favorite of mine, mainly because of turon, or Filipino banana lumpia. I can write what I am about to write only because I have the objectivity of a mere half-Filipino: these are better.
These little deep-fried dessert balls were unbelievable. The filling was thick with pure banana mush and the breading was donut-like in its texture and taste. The whole thing was coated in sugar. It was pure joy to eat and reason alone to come back to El Chalate.
In the end pupusas are pupusas and they all got eaten, but it was the other Salvadorean specialties that will have me coming back for more.