A good way to describe pupusas to those who don’t know is to imagine the halfway point between tacos and tamales.
Made of pan-fried masa dough stuffed with cheese and other ingredients, the Central American street snack also shares similarities with South America’s arepas, but eating one is a totally unique experience — especially if you score it right off the griddle.
Topped with traditional curtido slaw and tangy tomato salsa, and almost always eaten with your hands, a proper pupusa can cause a miniature culinary epiphany. What’s the secret to getting it right?
“Love,” joked Eugenia Solares from behind the stove at an Italian Market storefront on Saturday morning, where she was turning out the flatbreads at a furious pace.
Bite in to one of her spotted rounds and the lightly-crisped edges melt away, dissolving into a mouthful of hot, cheesy deliciousness sparked by cornflour’s grassy edge. Pull a section off, use it to scoop up more sauce and slaw, then close your eyes and enjoy the combinations of flavor and texture. Like a great cheesesteak or BLT, the ingredients in a good pupusa add up to more than the sum of their parts.
The memory of these quick, soul-fortifying meals are what led Solares’ daughter, Stephanie Gonzalez, to launch a semi-regular pupusa pop-up under the name Loroko.
“I grew up with this,” Gonzalez explained, recalling a childhood punctuated by pupusa sales, which her mother hosted regularly from their Central Jersey house or a roving minivan that would feed immigrant workers aching for a taste of their native land.
When Gonzalez, 27, moved to Philly a few years ago, “I realized I had been embarrassed of my heritage,” she said. “Instead I wanted to celebrate it — so I convinced my mom to do this.”
Pupusas are considered El Salvadorean in origin, but over the past decades they’ve spread to neighboring countries, including Guatemala, where Solares was born. In 1987, on her way to the United States, Solares became separated from the group of women being led across the border by a coyote. On her own, she found her way to New Jersey, where she eventually raised a family — and honed her pupusa skill. “Our Salvadorean friends taught us,” she said.
If you’ve never tried a pupusa, no surprise. There aren’t all that many places to get them in Philadelphia. They’re served at a handful of South Philly’s taquerias, and North Philly and Upper Darby have a few Salvadorean spots. El Merkury recently brought them to Rittenhouse.
Catching a Solares-Gonzalez “madre y hija” pop-up is one of the best ways to get the full pupusa experience.
Loroko started more than a year ago, but after half a dozen successful underground events, Gonzalez realized she needed to go legit if she wanted the operation to grow. She put the pop-up on hiatus last fall and enrolled in classes to obtain the required certifications.
The latest edition of Loroko — also spelled loroco, it’s the word for a type of edible Mesoamerian flower bud — was hosted at 1149 Cooperative, the collective storefront in the midst of the busy market on South Ninth Street.
Customers who placed pre-orders online via Facebook and Instagram for the masa cakes ($5 a pair) picked up versions with dairy or vegan cheese, and beans or no beans. Each came with a bag of vinegary curtido — Solares ferments hers in giant jars filled with cabbage, onions and carrots — and a side of housemade tomato sauce.
As each group came in at their set pickup time, Gonzalez met them at the counter and coordinated with Solares, who carefully plucked scoopfuls of masa, made hollows in the center with her thumb, pressed in the required stuffings and began batting the dough around between her palms.
“I don’t know how she makes them all the same size,” Gonzales said, watching her mother work. “It’s not that hard,” Solares said, grinning. “Practice.”
When will you get a chance to try Loroko yourself? Stay tuned to social media for the next pop-up date.