The pupusa allures, among the few street food standbys that remain remarkably ungentrified, a culinary property from the streets of San Salvador that’s shared by the hundreds of Latin American restaurants that lay scattered in the boroughs. In fact, Guillermina Ramirez began making them while working at a Mexican restaurant over a decade before she decided to get into the restaurant business herself.
But pupusas weren’t on her mind when she had opened a humble cafe in Ridgewood called Bud & Bean in late 2019, a culinary alternative to the two taco shops next door. When sales started to lag after the pandemic hit, Ramirez decided to risk the budding eatery’s fate on something that could be picked up easily and consumed at home. She nixed the room full of tables lit by the restaurant’s large glass window and enlarged the kitchen with a large, flat stove. A rebrand was in order and Pupusas Ridgewood was born.
“The idea of just having only pupusas on the menu was kind of strange, because for a lot of Mexican restaurants, the menus can be so varied and large,” Itanriquri Flores told Bushwick Daily. A bright, young graphic designer, she’s Ramirez’s daughter and had already sketched a vivid new advertisement for the pupuseria, comprising of a single floating pupusa, positioned like a singularly cheesy cloud in the sky. Working at her mother’s side, she’s regularly joined by Armando Santos, a charismatic family friend who describes Ramirez’s decision to open in the midst of the pandemic “courageous.”
There are indeed primarily pupusas on the single-page menu but the varieties speak to Ramirez’s creativity, offering everything from the customary choices of chicharrón or frijoles, as well as healthier options like loroco flower, broccoli and zucchini. A sense of cultural fusion animates these choices, with Ramirez pointing to the choice of chorizo as a deliberate effort to “mix and incorporate our culture” with El Salvador’s national dish. Drawn up during one of the strangest summers in recent history, Ramirez compliments the array of pupusa possibilities with a colorful drink menu that includes cool glasses of chan (a ruby red and gelatinous drink, made with chia seeds), cinnamon-infused horchata and marañón, made from the juice of cashews.
Opening its doors again in July, the pupusas were a hit almost immediately. Ramirez had noticed an early customer taking a snapshot of the thick, cheesy corn cakes and soon after Gothamist blogged eagerly about the pupuseria’s “under $10” qualities. NY1 Noticias came by with a camera crew and a feel-good story pegged around her economic success amid the pandemic and the New Yorker’s Hannah Goldfield used the opportunity to riff elaborately on the history of the cashew, celebrating the glasses of marañón as “a distinctive touchstone of another place.” From all over Queens and Bushwick, the customers came, somewhere between 80 and a 100 on the busiest days at the height of late summer, Ramirez remembers, though business has tempered slightly in the colder months. But even on a rainy New Year’s weekend, small groups can be seen outside, huddled in socially distant packs, waiting for their pupusas, which are made fresh after a 15-minute wait.
Pupuserias have been a constantly praised, if inconsistent, presence in the city’s eclectic food scene. A Brooklyn-based pupuseria pop-up, Solber Pupusas, nabbed a Vendy award in 2011, the same year as Souvlaki GR but while the latter went on to build a mini empire of brick-and-mortars in Manhattan, Solber shuttered in 2017. It seems every year, the pages of the New York Times’s budget dining vertical celebrates another newly opened maker of “cheesy, mouthwatering tang” which double as “one of the hundreds of small neighborhood spots that quietly sustain our city’s daily life.”
“Really there is a whole Central American cuisine that hasn’t been explored,” Flores says about the pupusa’s subdued popularity in the city. Unlike the taco, the burrito or, more recently, the arepa, the pupusa has yet to see widespread circulation in the universe of Manhattan fast casual chains but its fans are fierce, no less so than in El Salvador itself, where the dish doubles as a patriotic totem, is given a national holiday and where the Salvadorian novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya was forced into exile after, in part, lambasting the dish as “greasy nastiness” in his satirical, single-paragraph novella Revulsion: Thomas Bernard in San Salvador. In the book, the narrator warns “never let it occur to you to criticize pupusas…they’ll kill you.” (Moya speaks often of being bombarded with death threats following the book’s publication.)
But the way Ramirez makes them, pupusas can make for a luxurious lunch and a single savory slice will fill up a modest plate, though they can be easily piled and, in such a case, evoke the image of flapjacks glued together by a thick, rich cheese. Ramirez adds the standard accoutrements: a little bag of dried slaw (shredded cabbage, sliced carrots, jalapeño peppers and oregano) and a thin, mild salsa. Not on the menu but often advertised on the door are candied pumpkins, flavoured similarly to atole and, like the glasses of horchata, taste soft and sweet. The candied pumpkins is an item that Ramirez says she carried over from the pupuseria’s humble beginnings as a coffee shop and she says that she carried the recipe over from her own parents, who had been farmers in Mexico.
A warm and gregarious presence at Pupusas Ridgewood, Ramirez is an extrovert who says that cooking has become her way of de-stressing amid the punishing isolation of the ongoing pandemic. “She has this burning the back of her head now,” Santos says, telling Bushwick Daily that Ramirez had been loathe to even close shop on Christmas, animated by the sense of purpose making pupusas had brought her.
“There is something that can be done in this pandemic,” Ramirez says.
A local pupuseria with a colorful drink menu
71-20 Fresh Pond Rd, Ridgewood (off the Forest Avenue stop on the M train)
Mon-Sun: 11 am – 10 pm
Follow Pupusas Ridgewood: Instagram
Top photo credit: Andrew Karpan
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