Dining Panel review: Usuluteco Restaurant offers delectable taste of El Salvador

07/11/2012 1:36 PM

07/11/2012 1:36 PM

Experience the taste of El Salvador at Usuluteco Restaurant.

Several years ago, I attended a cooking demonstration at Cooking at Bonnie’s Place with chef Jason Febres the week he departed (the first time) from Melad Stephan’s restaurant Sabor. He introduced the class to an El Salvadorian treat: the pupasita, a tiny appetizer version of the larger pupusa. I began my search for this dish, and the only place I have found them in Wichita is Usuluteco Restaurant.

Usuluteco Restaurant is tucked away in an old strip mall near Cornejo & Sons. Sitting just off South Hydraulic and around the corner from Cactus Cantina and Grill and Fat Ernie’s Family Dining, Usuluteco is one restaurant most Wichitans would likely never go without a recommendation. Its rough exterior is only the facade to a clean, neatly remodeled interior, which provided a comfortable stage for the meal we were about to experience.

The menu consists of mostly traditional El Salvadorian versions of the Latin American cuisine with which we may be familiar. When you experience cuisine from a specific region or country, you get to taste dishes and ingredients you won’t find anywhere else. We sampled many items from the menu and took recommendations from the very helpful and friendly owner and his son.

Pupusas ($1.95 to $2.25 each) probably are the more well-known items on the menu. They’re a densely handmade corn tortilla stuffed with different fillings. We ordered: Revueltas (ground pork and cheese), Con Todo (cheese, beans and ground pork), and Chile (roasted poblano peppers and cheese).

The pupusas are griddled until each side is browned and the fillings are oozing out. A spicy mountain of lightly pickled cabbage and carrots comes on the side, with hot and mild sauce completing this dish.

The pupusas are hot and tender inside and crispy on the edges, giving this dish a well-rounded texture experience. The fillings are soft and smooth, and by incorporating the crunchy cabbage and a squirt of the fiery hot sauce, you have a memorable dish that is bursting with flavor.

Our favorite was the chile pupusa, which has a well-defined roasted peppery flavor and carries an unexpected kick of heat. An order of three pupusas is filling for one person.

In the past, I visited Usuluteco Restaurant exclusively for the pupusas. But having heard the other traditional dishes were equally good, we ordered several items to sample. The Tamale Pollo ($1.75) was a deliciously light and fluffy chicken tamale, with a moist and creamy texture. The tamale is steamed in banana leaves rather than the usual cornhusk. This gives added flavor not typical of your traditional tamale.

We ventured to the Marsicos (seafood) side of the menu to try the Filete de Tilapia ($8.99), fried tilapia fillets served with black refried beans and rice. The tilapia was lightly battered and fried and seasoned well with salt. It was a simple yet delicious dish, packing a lot of flavor into a typically flavorless fish. Next time, we’ll try the whole fish version (they were out of it on this visit).

Next we tried the Bistec Encebollado ($8.49), top sirloin steak strips cooked in a garlicky-tomato sauce with onions and green bell peppers. The beef was tender and resembled the characteristic of a richly prepared homemade beef stew. Accompanied by beans, rice and two thick homemade corn tortillas, this dish was a powerhouse of Latin American flavor.

To round off our meal, we ordered Platanos Fritos con Crema y Frijoles ($5.49), fried plantains with sour cream and beans. The caramelized plantains were melt-in-your-mouth tender and slightly sweet like a banana. Combine them with crema and smooth black refried beans, and you nearly have a dessert course.

To drink, we tried a can of Kolachampan ($1.75). This orange-colored Salvadorian soda is described as being made by mixing five other sodas. Attempting to describe the flavor would be difficult. Each of us had different ideas of what the flavor was; this is a truly distinct drink.

It’s difficult to go to a restaurant and walk away 100 percent satisfied with everything you eat. But this meal was one of those rare experiences where everyone at the table enjoyed everything we ate. Even the most basic side dishes, like beans and rice, were delicious. Not to mention, our service was exceptional.

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