by Eric Ginsburg
Pupusas are like the hamburger of El Salvador — an ubiquitous, heavy meal. A few other Central American countries serve up pupusas, too, but they’re never quite as satisfying as the Salvadoran version.
Though small, pupusas are deceptively filling. The thick, corn tortilla, about the size of a CD, is typically filled with some combination of cheese, ground pork or refried beans. el Triunfo offers two of the most common options, just cheese filling and chicharrones (pork) and cheese, but also veggies with cheese and chicken with cheese.
At el Triunfo, a medium-sized restaurant that shares a parking lot with a post office and trampoline park at the corner of North Point Boulevard and University Parkway, newcomers to Salvadoran cuisine might not notice much difference between the pork and chicken pupusas. Both are satisfying, but the chicken feels like a mild betrayal while more traditional chicharrones and cheese pupusas hit the mark.
Similarly to the way many North Carolinians eat their barbecue — topped with slaw — pupusas are generally served with a fermented cabbage mix on the side, akin to coleslaw without the mayo. Here the cabbage and carrot clump is a strong complement, allowing the diner to add the usual tomato-ey red salsa or a spicier green salsa option herself.
My advice: Take the straight up route and order pupusas with chicharrones and cheese, rake the cabbage over the top, liberally dump on red salsa and take these weighty discs down with a fork and knife.
During the post-lunch lull my server, a man who hails from San Miguel, El Salvador, disappeared as I experimented with the green salsa, instantly regretting the move. I realized I’d already drunk my water and had earlier decided against splurging for the milky, cinnamon horchata that would’ve helped neutralize the heat. He returned to me, the only customer at the time, before disaster ensued, but I seriously considered walking back and filling my own water.
The casual restaurant is decorated with what look like towels nailed to the walls depicting women making pupusas and maps of El Salvador. Blame the spartan vibe, heat outside or the authenticity of the food, but I could almost close my eyes and see the Pacific unrolling before me at a Salvadoran beach.
This could almost be one of the countless pit stops across the tiny Central American nation where I’ve ordered the same meal, and I almost let myself slip away there as my stack of pupusas diminished.
It would be easy to miss the lunch specials listed on the back of the menu, including a pupusa, tamale and pastel combo or an order of three pupusas. Inside the menu an order of pupusas includes four, which is more than enough to make most people feel obese for at least a few hours. Three is a more reasonable feat.
Anyone looking to experiment with Salvadoran food might find the sampler pupusa, tamal, pastel item to be a smoother welcome. Even cut in half, the pastel, filled with chicken, is hot enough to burn mouths. Encased in a fried shell, like a cross between an eggroll and a samosa, the pastel brings some crunch to the meal, contrasting with the soft and moist tamal wrapped in a banana leaf. Neither disappoints, nor do they outshine the pupusas.
There are other things on the menu that might be more familiar for some — fried tilapia, a grilled fish filet, grilled flank steak or even fried pork with fried yucca. But at least on the first visit, it’s a good move to try something new.
El Triunfo even serves Salvadoran breakfast, something even rarer to find in the Triad than pupusas, including one with eggs, plantain, beans, cream and tortilla or el tipico with a pupusa, tamal, and plantain with cream. Both, especially to someone who’s tried each dish before, sound delightful.
Find el Triunfo on Facebook or call 336.896.8600. 7842 North Point Boulevard, Winston-Salem.