The pupusa maker — I assume there are more than one, but it always seems to be the same woman when I go — throws those pupusas together with poetic ease, dozens at a time. She chats with the rest of the cooks as she works, occasionally glances at the line of tickets above her head, but never, ever stops moving her hands.
Her work is endlessly fascinating to me because at Elsy’s, the pupusas are the shining stars, and she’s the engine that cranks them to life. I’m sure her fellow kitchen folk are creating fine things in their bubbling stockpots and sizzling frying pans, but my eyes — and my nose — are always drawn to that little corner in the window, the one that fills the air with the sweet, buttery smell of frying masa dough.
That dough is what makes Elsy’s pupusas special. The texture inside is smooth and not a touch mealy, while the outside is blistered and golden-brown — soft enough to cut through, but firm enough to grab with your fingers without breaking through to the filling.
I usually use a knife and fork, but if you want to be traditional about it, there are a few signs posted around the restaurant that give step-by-step instructions on how to eat “like a native,” a hands-on technique that usually leaves an inexperienced pupusa eater such as myself helplessly covered in a sad mess.
Curtido, basically Salvadorean coleslaw, comes on the side by the bowlful and adds a zesty vinegar kick to the pupusas, which on their own are fairly mild. Also mild is the thin salsa roja, another traditional accompaniment, not meant to be particularly spicy.
My palate, overheated by decades of jalapeno-heavy Mexican food, demands some hefty slugs of Tapatio to reach a familiar level of peppery punch.
There are two pupusa varieties not to be missed — first, for meat eaters, the revuelta, which means mixed. It includes cheese and a layer of pureed refried beans as well as chicharron, a pork preparation not to be confused with the deep-fried pork rinds we all know and love. This is meat that’s been shredded and fried and ground to a paste-like consistency, which along with the cheese and beans, creates a creamy and deeply savory filling.
Herbivores should try the loroco y queso, oozing with cheese and studded with green bits of loroco, a flowering vine common in El Salvador that tastes tantalizingly familiar yet unique, like an exotic hybrid of broccoli and asparagus.
The rest of Elsy’s menu is of the rustic, hearty, home-cooked variety, with nothing thrilling save one standout — the platanos y crema, fried plantains, caramelized and gooey, served with tangy crema (think creme fraiche) and refried beans. It’s listed as breakfast, but I like it as dessert — assuming I haven’t filled up on pupusas.
Location: 2893 Mission St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 642-0104, www.elsysrestaurant.com
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Price range: $1.29 to $12.59
Recommended dishes: Revuelta pupusa ($2.25), loroco y queso pupusa ($2.25), platanos y crema ($6.59), tamal de pollo ($2.59), pastelitos ($3.59)
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard
Reservations: Not accepted