All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
The layout of the Payless Store for Beer and Wine on Carroll Avenue goes a little something like this: 75 percent of the building, the one near near Abrams where dirt is often steaming off the parking lot from in-and-out cars, is a full-fledged convenience store. Single-file walkways are stuffed with rows of spicy nuts and domestic beer and wine. The other 25 percent of the store, at the south end, is one of Dallas’ best and most shockingly inexpensive spots to grab hand-made pupusas.
Pork mist hisses from one griddle. The line grows with people, the jarring clang of the convenience door sounding each time someone stumbles in. Nearby, Dallas construction teams are jackhammering, and you can feel it in your teeth. Ignoring it, however, is easy. Why? Because there are thick discs of masa, each stuffed with a scoop of cloud-white cheese and shredded pork, crackling loudly on the griddle. At high noon, Pasadita’s pupusas call to you from the back of line. I stand on my toes to see them on the grill like I’m a kid on a roller-coaster ride. The griddle is hot enough to spark pork fat, which means a satisfying crust is forming.
The other griddle is a beautiful flat map showcasing pork pyramids: little neat piles of crusty chicharrónes, about a dozen or so evenly distributed, all the color of molasses or mahogany. One cook stuffs masa pockets with shredded queso blanco. Then, owner and chef Ana Ortiz pulls the finished pupusas from the spatting griddle, (stuffed with that crusty pork), fills a foil pack with curtido — a fermented cabbage slaw — and one whole blistered jalapeño. Each pupusa costs $1.80.
This is the shoebox convenience store that hosts East Dallas’ 17-year-old Pupuseria La Pasadita. In February 2000, Ortiz, who’d been slinging tacos out of a trailer in the spot where the Louisiana Famous Fried Chicken is now, eyed the backroom kitchen at 205 N. Carroll Ave. Turkey legs and hamburgers were on the menu at the time, but business was slow. Ortiz, who was born in El Salvador and moved to Dallas in the '90s, had spent some time cooking at Cuquita's and Mis Cazuelas and, after whipping on tacos nearby, insisted on updating the kitchen at 205 North Carroll. The owner gave in.
“She’d try to sell tacos, but everyone came for one thing,” says her son.
When she finally was able to take over the kitchen, business picked up quickly. It was the pupusas. Now, on any given day, you can watch them sizzle and crackle, handmade every step of the way. There are no machines at La Pasadita; everything touches the hands of the ladies behind the register at the south end of the convenience store. Come at lunch and the griddle sends smoky, porky, street food aromas into the store. This is real fast food. Two pupusas — with salsa and tangy, crunchy cabbage, enough for a meal — cost $3.60. Handing over a few dollar bills for this food feels too good to be true. On my recent visit, I felt the strong urge to ask, “Is that right?” when the faded green numbers appeared on the register. It’s one of city's best damn deals, and everything is handmade.
The pupusas are stunning and flavorful: The pork is an electric, eye-opening and meaty richness that finds seared cheese and the natural, earthen taste of salt. This is pork that tastes wholly of itself. Tender masa, part soft-chewy and part fried-crispy, will steer you away from processed, no-lard facsimiles forever.
These pupusas are a daily process, of course, a steadily linear stream since February 2000. They mix the masa and vigorously simmer pork until it’s a steaming cauldron of beautiful fats. That pork fat oils up the griddle, which lets the shredded chicharrónes char and crust.
“I wanted to do something authentic,” she says. Her son Wilbur, who works the store with his mom, translates. “That’s the best way to do it,” she says in a way implies: How could you imagine anything else?
Behind us, beyond the metal benches outside the pupuseria, construction teams carve into the streets with jackhammers. It clangs with the inescapable sound of change. There's something worrisome about it: What’s the future for the East Dallas spot?
“We’re planning on making it a family business,” Wilbur Ortiz says, and he's grinning with the calm of someone who's seen good business.
It's good to hear.
Pupuseria La Pasadita, 205 N. Carroll Ave.