The sight of freshly cooked pupusas warms my soul. I’m the child of Salvadoran parents, so pupusas were served for every occasion. Breakfast, lunch, dinner—they’re an all-day kind of food. Mexicans and Hondurans make them, too, but El Salvador is credited with creating the beloved disk-like treat.
My mother would spend hours in the kitchen kneading the masa, cooking the chicharron [pork] and blending it into a smooth, chunky paste, then patting the ingredients — cheese, beans and chicharron — into a perfect circle.
Like many Salvadoran men, I don’t know how to make pupusas, though I have assisted on occasion. Longing for my childhood meal, I decided to try the Mission’s key Salvadoran food spots.
Based on my childhood experience, I know how a pupusa should taste:
It has to be light, seared golden at the top. You have to use El Salvadoran cheese because it has a certain saltiness. If the pupusa has chicharron, it can’t be blended to the point where it’s runny. They also shouldn’t be too greasy, which pupusas can easily become – a characteristic that some love.
I usually eat chicharron and cheese pupusas, so I personally don’t place a lot of importance on how the beans should be cooked.
The texture is important. You grind, not pulverize, the chicharron. When the flavors are just right, they take me back to the comfort of my mother’s kitchen table.
Curtido and the sauce are also crucial parts of the pupusa eating experience. Curtido is a pickled salad of thinly sliced cabbage and carrots with just the right amount of acidity. The sauce is tomato-based and usually has a light, salty flavor with a good amount of garlic and a touch of spicy heat.
Most people will drizzle the sauce over the pupusa, but I do not. In my family, we eat pupusas with our hands and like to dip the pieces into the sauce instead. Going into the restaurants, I was looking for a pupusa that would not fall apart in my hands.
Panchita’s at 3091 16th St.
Panchita’s has been in the Mission for 30 years and it shows. They have a steady stream of customers and offer a diverse pupusa menu. Aside from the holy trinity of beans, cheese and chicharron, customers can order a mushroom and jalapeno pupusa. For the sake of the journey, I stuck to chicharron and cheese. The chicharron was thoroughly blended and was so tasty that it made up for the runny texture.
Panchita’s uses a mix of Monterey and Salvadoran cheese, which gave the pupusa a nice salty flavor as well as a delicious, gooey texture. They were so heavily packed with food that the ingredients flowed out. I was forced to use a fork and knife, a downside for me.
The curtido was well pickled and not too sour. It had just a touch of salt, which I think compliments the spice from the jalapeno. The sauce was decent and had a good balance of salt and garlic.
Panchitas broke a lot of the rules, but their pupusas were so tasty that I could look past these shortcomings. I would definitely return, though I’m not sure my mother would say the same.
Overall, I give Panchita’s an 8 out of 10.
D’Maize at 2778 24th St.
D’Maize has been in business for seven years, making them the newest restaurant on this list. They only use Salvadoran cheese, so points for authenticity. The pupusas were very warm and had a nice, light sear. They were a little greasy but not overly so. I could taste the garlic and saltiness of the chicharron, not to mention a bit of cumin.
It was toasted on the outside but had a light texture, and I could hold the pupusa. The insides were gooey but not runny, and the chicharron was packed in but not overflowing. The curtido was nicely shredded and had a light, pickled flavor. The unusual sweetness of the carrot set this curtido apart from the other restaurants. The sauce didn’t have a strong tomato taste, which I like.
It was a bit runnier than the other sauces, but had a balanced, flavor. While they tasted different than my mother’s pupusas, I thoroughly enjoyed them as well as the home-like environment.
Overall, I give D’maize a hard 8 out of 10.
Balompie Café at 3349 18th St.
Balompie Café — a quaint, soccer-themed restaurant — has been kicking it in the Mission for 32 years. They offer a variety of Salvadoran dishes but their pupusas are the main attraction. The pupusas were visually appealing with a nice golden sear. They were nicely toasted but were still soft and gooey. The chicharron and beans were soft but not too runny— the texture was almost perfect. I could even hold it with my hands!
The curtido had more cabbage than carrot slices, which I like. I would have liked a more acidic flavor and also a bit more spice. The sauce had a light tomato taste and the perfect balance of garlic and saltiness. It too, however, could have used more spice to balance the sweet tomato flavor.
To be honest, I was not crazy about the sauce but the pupusas and curtido more than made up for the sauce’s shortcomings. Balompie’s pupusas brought me back to my mother’s kitchen table, which was actually a bittersweet feeling. I was happy I could taste my mother’s cooking in the meal, but was sad that my family and friends were not also there.
Overall, I give Balompie Cafe a 9 out of 10.
La Santaneca De la Mission at 2815 Mission St.
La Santaneca is a Mission institution. They’ve been in business for roughly 30 years, according to an employee. The sign outside the restaurant advertises a Mexican-Salvadoran food experience, so I kept this is mind while trying their pupusas.
Their pupusas were well toasted, had a nice sear, and were an eye-catching golden hue. They were not too greasy and had a toasted yet soft texture. Santaneca substitutes Monterey jack cheese for the Salvadoran cheese, which is considerably less salty and much gooier.
The curtido was very pickled but a bit too acidic for my tastes. The sauce had a nice balance of flavors, not to mention good consistency. I was surprised to see bits of cilantro and onion inside, which is not common practice in El Salvador. This was not a strike for me but rather made the sauce unique. Last but not least, I could hold the pupusa!
Overall, I give La Santaneca a light 8 out of 10.
El Salvador Restaurant at 2278 Mission St.
The tiny hole in the wall spot is located on the corner of 19th and Mission St. El Salvador was the first Salvadoran restaurant I tried in the Mission, and I initially enjoyed every bite of my pupusas. For my journey, I saved their pupusas for last and I have to say, I was disappointed. They were still tasty but definitely not as fulfilling as when I first tried them.
The pupusas had that nice sear I always look for and were toasted enough that I could eat the pupusa with my hands. The cheese tasted like a mix of Salvadoran and Monterey Jack cheese, which I think offset the saltiness of the Salvadoran cheese.
The chicharron was tasty but was a bit too salty and lacking in garlic. They were by far the greasiest pupusas I’ve tried so far, which left me feeling very sluggish afterwards.
The curtido was not as pickled as I would like but had a balanced acidity and a nice spiciness. The sauce is probably the meal’s saving grace. It has a nice tomato flavor but was not too sweet, and it has the right amount of garlic and saltiness.
Overall, I give El Salvador Restaurant a hard 6, light 7 out of 10.