Tiny La Pasadita Packs Big Flavors
Pupusería La Pasadita may be one of the smallest restaurants in Dallas. It's a stretch even to call the ramshackle takeout joint a restaurant. This is a food truck without wheels. There's no seating, unless you count the sad metal bench sitting on the curb out front, and there's little room to stand. The tiny kitchen, not more than 100 square feet, is nestled in the back of an impossibly cramped convenience store on Carroll Avenue, just off Columbia Avenue in East Dallas.
Pay Less Store, Wine and Beer specializes in the latter, mostly. A large cooler full of tall boys, magnums and cases of cheap cans and bottles, which also serves as La Pasadita's walk-in, lines one side of the store. A row of small reach-ins lines the other side, offering water and sodas. What floor space hasn't been devoted to shelving and racks for hanging bags of snacks and nuts is filled with open barrels of ice keeping more singles cold. During lunch and dinner rushes the two narrow aisles between the shelves are filled with customers basking in the smell of toasting masa and simmering pork.
Fewer than 10 customers is enough to fill the Pay Less Store, which might not sound like a lot, but it's always full. Shortly after one customer leaves another comes in, each jockeying his way to the front of the line to order pupusas — two, three and sometimes 20 at a time — before securing a cramped space on the floor to wait for their plastic carry-out bags warmed from the inside with steam.
A pupusa is a Salvadoran corn cake made from the same instant masa used to make tamales and tortillas. Pupusas are much thicker than tortillas, though, and stuffed with cheese and your choice of beans or chicharrón at La Pasadita. The beans are heavy, laden with lard and very good, but the pork is the reason most customers stand in line.
Do not confuse this chicharrón with the fried pig skin of other Latin cuisines. The term is used in pupusa speak to describe pork that's been stewed and then ground into a paste that almost seamlessly combines with melting cheese. At La Pasadita, though, the pork is more coarsely shredded. It maintains its integrity and stands out against other ingredients. This is pork you could tuck into tortillas for a great taco. It is pork you could almost eat on its own.
Ana Ortiz is responsible for the compelling swine. She opened La Pasadita in February 2000, after the city cracked down on unlicensed vendors and closed the trailer she operated out front of Taquería Pinocho, just down Carroll Avenue. She spent a little time in the kitchen of Cuquita's, the Mexican restaurant that closed on Henderson Avenue, before a friend told her about the open space at the Pay Less Store. She's been patting out pupusas there ever since.
If you come in during the lunch rush you'll see two aluminum pots over gas burners running full tilt. Large chunks of pork protrude from rapidly bubbling water. Between taking orders, working the phone, patting and flipping pupusas, and packaging orders, Ortiz reaches over and squeezes one of the meat cubes with her fingers.
When the pork is soft enough, she drains the pot, reserving the cooking liquid before turning the pork out onto a flat grill and making sure to scrape all the burnt, crusty bits from the bottom. The meat lands in an explosive burst of steam before Ortiz uses a heavy spatula to turn the pile, using her other bare hand to flip over the row of pupusas she tossed on the grill a minute or two before. When the pork gets dry, she adds some of the reserved cooking liquid. When the pork starts to stick, she scrapes the desiccated bits from the surface of the grill and gives the massive pile of meat another turn.
Meanwhile, La Pasadita is doing a bustling business. In between chopping and turning the steaming pork, Ortiz is patting out pupusa after pupusa and throwing them on the grill like big, fat, finger-dimpled pancakes.
The pork is finished when the reserved broth is completely gone, reincorporated entirely into the meat as it sizzles on the flat-top. Some of the pork has been reduced down to threads and some of it remains in bite-sized chunks. Some is still moist and fatty and some is almost dry like pork jerky. The inconsistency is what makes these pupusas so delicious. While other pupusas are filled with a homogenous blend of melted cheese and pork paste, Ortiz's version is filled with pork you will crave. Each bite is a little different. Each bite is delicious.
Pupusas must not exist without curtido, a lightly fermented cabbage slaw, and a bland, runny sauce, typically made from tomatoes and chiles. In both of these La Pasadita excels again. The cabbage is bright and crisp, and the tomatillo-based sauce boasts the unexpected addition of onions and cilantro, adding depth of flavor and pungency. Arbol chiles give the salsa its characteristic red color and some serious heat.
Despite the size of the kitchen, all of these components are made by hand just behind the counter. Walk in at any given moment and you'll see Ortiz or one of her employees blending chiles and tomatillos before straining them for the sauce, mixing masa dough in a giant black bin or turning a massive pile of chiles while they hiss and pop on the grill.
While the wait can be cumbersome, it's worth it to come during the lunch or dinner rush when you're far more likely to get your meal seconds after it's lifted from the grill. You must bring cash, but you won't need much. Ortiz's pupusas, dressed with curtido tucked into a foil pouch like a taco, a small cup of salsa and a blistered jalapeño will set you back $1.75.
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