El Majahual, on Valencia Street between 22nd and 23rd Streets, is a tiny little restaurant specializing in Colombian and Salvadorean food, and is named after a small fishing village in El Salvador. The restaurant has been in this spot for 22 years. We have lived a block-and-a-half from it for ten years, and this was our first time visiting. And though both our families hail from South America and we’ve both visited, neither of us had ever had Colombian food. We have wasted many, many years.

The restaurant is small and casual, adorned in bright colors with Salvadorean and Colombian tchotchkes. You pay at the register, but the servers, who do triple-duty as cooks and co-owners, do take table-side orders. The husband and wife team originate from El Salvador (she) and Colombia (he).

Photo by Maria Ascarrunz

The menu is divided into Salvadorean and Colombian dishes, with a little Mexican thrown in as a nod to the neighborhood, I’m sure. There are empanadas, arepas, burritos, pupusas, as well as soups, stews, grilled meats and fish. As both the BF and I have tried some Salvadorean food (mostly pupusas), we decided to stick to a strictly Colombian dinner on our first visit. The BF ordered the Sobrebarriga A La Criolla, described as “grandma’s recipe”, and consisted of flank steak stewed with cassava and potatoes, rice, salad and ripe plantain. Wanting to try something very traditional, I ordered the Bandeja Paisa, a combination plate well-known in the northwest of the country, in a region called Paisa, part of the Colombian Andes.

Photo by Maria Ascarrunz

Sobrebarriga means, literally, “on or over the belly” – or, flank steak!  The flank steak is typically cooked in a broth in a pressure cooker until it is tender, then napped in a sauce of tomatoes, onions, celery, cumin, and annatto, a condiment derived from the achiote bush, which gives the dish flavor (almost nutmeggy, but subtly so) as well as a distinctive yellow-ish color. The meat was tender and delicious, and the yucca (cassava) had taken on the flavors as well. The BF said “This tastes like South America,” and I agreed – so very homey! The fried bananas were sweet and meltingly soft, and a great compliment to the rest of the dish. I would definitely order this dish again, despite the fact that the salad came with bottled Wishbone Italian dressing! The BF said it went perfectly with the dish. It was, after all, like eating in your mother’s kitchen.

Photo by Maria Ascarrunz

My Bandeja Paisa included rice, whole pinto beans, a fried egg, crispy pork belly with skin on, a sausage, a grilled steak, a quarter of an avocado, green plantain cakes (patacones), and an arepa.

Patacones are the same as tostones – mashed green plantains formed into patties and deep fried.  The result is a starchy patty, which I usually find bland.  But here, they had full plantain flavor, and were a nice cross between crispy and chewy.  Arepa, a fried disk made of maize flour dough – is basically a fat tortilla.  Colombia is well known for its arepas, which usually come like a sandwich with various fillings, or like a tostada, with toppings, such as cheese, avocado, egg, chorizo, etc.  In this dish, it was unadorned and used as bread to sop up the beans.

My plate was daunting, overflowing as it was with so many meats and starches, but I managed to do quite a bit of damage to it. The pork was incredibly crispy and fatty, and full of porky flavor. In fact, every component of this dish had its own, distinct flavor and texture, and so it made sense that they’d been combined together on one plate. The sausage was rather like Spanish chorizo, with lovely paprika notes, and the grilled steak had almost a meaty liver taste to it (in the best possible way), a richness, which I enjoyed thoroughly. The avocado lent its smooth butteriness to the dish, and the egg made a rich sauce over all. Another wonderful dish.

Photo by Maria Ascarrunz

I hadn’t noticed that they sell beer, as it’s on a lettered sign by the register and not on the menu, so I ordered a soda, “Colombiana – La Nuestra” – whose slogan, “La que tomamos en casa,” (“The one we drink at home,”), made me curious to try it. It’s a kola nut soda, also known as a “Champagne Cola”. I’m not much of a soda drinker anymore, but it was slightly sweet, a bit fruity, and creamier tasting than an orange soda. When I looked at the ingredients, however, HFCS topped the list, so I’d probably not order it again. But I could see where it could be addictive, as it was just sweet enough to be refreshing but not cloying. Beer next time! There is also a handwritten sign listing their desserts, but we were too full.

I saw quite a few patrons ordering food to go and picking it up, always the mark of a local hometown favorite. We paid $43.00 before tip, which may not be considered cheap for this type of rustic food, but considering the quality (and quantity), we left feeling very satisfied and that we’d gotten our money’s worth.

Our second visit (we could hardly wait to go back), we ordered a little less food: We started out with a couple of empanadas Vallunas (named after a valley in Chile) – plump little fried empanadas that come piping hot, stuffed with a mixture of beef and potato. We were instructed to hold one in a napkin, bite off the tip, and then pour the bright green chile sauce (habanero, scallions, lime, garlic, and a lot of cilantro) into the empanada, adding sauce to each bite. The empanadas are crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside, wonderfully savory, and the sauce was addictive!

Photo by Maria Ascarrunz
Photo by Maria Ascarrunz

For his meal, the BF ordered two pupusas of queso and loroco – cheese, and loroco – the unopened buds of a flowering vine that has a rather herbaceous, pungent flavor, used often in Salvadorean and Guatamalan cooking. These were fat and came with the standard curtido – a pickled cabbage slaw – and some red hot sauce. We both agreed there were probably the best pupusas we’d ever had. It was the first time I could actually taste the loroco. The masa was tender without being doughy.

Photo by Maria Ascarrunz

I ordered the sudado de pollo (chicken stew), which turned out to be almost exactly like the Sobrebarriga dish the BF had had on our first visit, with the same, distinctive yellow coloring from the annatto. We both liked the flank steak better, but there was nothing wrong with this delicious, comforting version. Again, I ate almost everything on my plate.

Photo by Maria Ascarrunz

Such a great neighborhood find, even after all these years. We left already planning what we’ll order the next time we go….

El Majahual
1142 Valencia St
Btwn 22nd & 23rd St
(415) 821-7514

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