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Everyone loves to be the one "in the know," the one in touch, the one who knows what's hot and what's not.

Everyone loves a secret--if they're in on it--and from the first day it opened, Gloria's was everyone's favorite secret. "Hey, I know this great little Salvadoran place." (Salvadoran--what's that? It sounds so exotic, so impressive.)

Then the punch line: "It's in Oak Cliff."
What a one-two. To most of Dallas, exhibiting a knowledge of the Cliff is really strutting some stuff. (You mean--it's in Oak Cliff and you've been there and drunk margaritas and you can find it again? Cool.)

Location is everything. It's still a big adventure for most Dallasites to cross the Trinity, and that was a lot of the romance of Gloria's. It's such a big adventure that I'm sure it seemed limiting to business, sifting out timid types with tabloid notions of neighborhoods to the south of theirs.

Gloria's has tried moving north of the river before, but they overshot the mark a little, opening up way out at LBJ and Abrams. Now they've split the difference: the new new restaurant is on Lemmon in Friday's Court, a more suitably low-key location.

The new Gloria's is at least as unpretentious as the old, but I prefer the original location. It's hard to say why. The owners haven't even succumbed to the pressure to decorate, which would certainly have been expected and excused. This is undecor, and I don't mean that contrived cantina look with the neon. No one could even call these "design elements": cement floors, cases of beer, vinyl tablecloths, boxes of groceries.

There's never been anything fancy about Gloria's food, either. "Salvadoran" sounds exotic, but really, this isn't that different from Mexican food. That's good, because Dallasites, for the most part, do not have adventurous palates--even our high-end restaurants, many so-called French ones, have to throw in a few chili peppers to make the clientele comfortable.

A few of Gloria's dishes--fried yuca, fried plantain--stray from the beaten Tex-Mex track, but even on the section of the menu designated "Salvadoran food," many things sound familiar--pollo asada, carne adobada, tamales. And more than half the menu is given over to Mexican food and "SalvaTex" combinations: fajitas, quesadillas, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, etc.

Some foods, though, are novel. I've never had, anywhere else, the wonderful dip of black beans that's presented along with the thin tostados and cilantro-spiked salsa. The texture isn't thick or floury, like a puree; it's as if the beans were coarsely ground and cooked in a soup-like base. Actually, the stuff would make a great soup. And our group of four ate several bowls of it as if it were.

Pupusas are news, too. As addictive as nachos or quesadillas, but more interesting, they inspire the same question you can't help asking about the ship in the bottle: how does this get in there? Restaurant menu language is often metaphorical, elusive, inaccurate. "Grilled" means "griddled," "roasted" means "baked" (I've often had dishes described as "stuffed" when they were actually "topped"). But these pupusas, thick tortillas, are somehow actually slit and stuffed with cheese, then sauteed till it melts, oozing out slightly in pale gold blobs the color of the corn tortilla. Oooh, they're sexy, extravagant things, though not complicated at all.

Tamales at Gloria's have a tropical touch, each wrapped in a big green banana leaf, which you unfold and unfold and unfold, like one of those favor balls you used to get at birthday parties where the prizes fell out as you unwound the colored paper. The prize here--after you've found an unobjectionable place to deposit the wet leaf--is a steamed cornmeal dumpling, slightly sweet, like soft mush, moister than the husk-wrapped cousins we eat in Mexican restaurants, with here and there a chunk of tender chicken or a fleck of pepper.

Fried yuca, cut in sticks like Ore-Ida fries, is soft inside, slightly stringy and sweet like yams or squash, pale, barely coated in crispness, served with chicharrone and a little lemon to liven things up; platano frito, fried plantain, is also a sweet, starchy, potato-alternative kind of taste--bland but filling. You can sample all these things, if you want to cover the Salvadoran front, by ordering "Gloria's Super Special," which contains one of each, plus black beans and rice.

Several of the other Salvadoran dishes offered are stew-like mixes of meat with veg--on our last visit we sampled the "bistec encebollado," marinated beef with "lots of onions" (as advertised) and a tomato sauce, good folded into a flour tortilla. A dish that, like chili, was probably invented to make inexpensive, tougher meat more palatable and ended up becoming an end in itself.

On the Mexican side, fajitas at Gloria's are tasty and a bargain, too. No one gives you a serving of fajitas you can actually eat at one sitting; it seems to be an essential part of the dish that you have to struggle to make a dent in the pile of sizzling strips of meat and pepper. Gloria's fajitas were no exception, but they were only $7.95.

I wish Gloria Fuentes and family well in their latest venture--I couldn't really find any differences between the Oak Cliff restaurant and the Lemmon Avenue one, so if you're looking for food alone, there's no reason the latest Gloria's should not do well.

But I have to lament the loss of one of the few places in the Cliff that Parkies and north Dallasites would actually go. Some stubborn people will undoubtedly still travel to the original Gloria's, but why drive further than you need to when you can get basically the same effect closer to home?

Still, replicas tend to dilute the appeal of the original, because uniqueness is its own charm.

Gloria's, 4140 Lemmon Ave., 521-7576. Open daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

Pupusas $1.25 each
Gloria's Super Special $6.50
Carne Adobada $6.95
Beef Fajitas $7.95
Platano Frito $3.75

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