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Pupusa Heat: Restaurante Salvadoreno



Banana Republic Central Avenue eatery takes patrons out of CharlotteCentral Avenue, between Plaza Midwood and Sharon Amity, has always felt like another place - not Charlotte, not Carolina. I mean a completely different place, like a small town in the Yucatan or a wadi off the Nile. Central Avenue enjoys a realism that many sections of this city lack. The only plasticity of the restaurants along Central is perhaps the utensils or the hanging plants.Central Avenue entrepreneurs, however, are engaged in that same obsessive, painstaking work ethic that other restaurateurs in the city are, although the fear of failure is perhaps more palpable here. Block by block, these entrepreneurs' dreams have transformed this low-rent, utilitarian area, which in other cities might have become a "Little Italy" or "Little Chinatown," into a patchwork of different cultures: Latino, Asian and Arab. Nowhere along this strip will you find the lush, contrived epnic (Disneyfied Epcot ethnic) restaurant settings that pervade the rest of Charlotte's culinary landscape. If you want authentic ethnic, explore Central Avenue.What's new along Central is the declining use of the English language, both on menus and with servers. I find this appealing, although I can understand how challenging this may be. This could be particularly difficult if you're someone who just speaks louder in English to the non-English-speaking clerk in Mexico City, Beijing or Paris, the one who didn't catch your English the first go. If this describes you, this part of town may not be your kind of place. However, if you thrive on the unexpected and prefer Rick Steve's account of his journey through El Salvador to Frommer's, you'll be amazed how much fun you can have within a few miles of the shadow of BOA's headquarters.One of the newer spots to open on Central (last August, to be exact) is the 80-seat Pupusa Heat: Restaurante Salvadoreo (Restaurante Familiar), in the space once occupied by Huong Viet. Little of the interior has changed: The walls are still pink and the tables functional. Here and there are Vietnamese relics such as bamboo plants and red Asian lanterns, now mixed in with the perfunctory flag of El Salvador and other objects de origens.The restaurant is named for the national street food of El Salvador: the pupusa. (A pupuser'a is like a taco stand.) These are naan-thick, corn flour tortillas the size of a CD. When filled with either a soft white cheese or fried pork rinds, they become pupusas revueltas ($1.50 each). The pupusas here are made in-house the traditional way of slapping the dough from palm to palm to flatten it out. Mozzarella, a surprising choice, is the cheese used since the owner has had a difficult time importing the Salvadorian cheese. One taste of the cheese oozing through casing will convince you this is a street food with universal appeal.Served with the pupusas is a hearty helping of a vinegary cole slaw, or curtido, a mix of cabbage and carrots. Most people order at least three pupusas revueltas at a time.The first item out of the kitchen was a traditional breakfast dish: plantano con crema y frijoles, sautéed green plantains separating a pool of refried beans from the opposing pool of sour cream. Other appetizers followed, like a corn tamale which is unlike a Mexican tamale. This is made from a super-fine, intensely flavored corn meal and is more like polenta than corn bread. The only starter which did not catch our fancy was the pastel de carne, a deep-fried empanada, woefully overcooked with a bland meat filling in need of a hefty boost from their bright tasting salsa. The pollo en crema entree was decked with a small salad, rice, a delicious mash of refried beans, and two pupusas.Beverages include beer, fruit smoothies, horchata with cinnamon, an orange eggnog, canned sodas, dark coffee and hot chocolate. Among the desserts, I found an intriguing quezadilla — not to be confused with the Mexican quesadilla appetizer, this is a Salvadorian cheesecake topped with sesame seeds. There's also the delicately prepared empanadas de plantano, banana turnovers.Prices are a steal. An economical cut of beef and the chicken dinners with sides are less than $9, while a full breakfast of eggs, sautéed plantains, two tortillas and refried beans is only $6.El Salvador's horrific history plays into the owner not wanting publicity for himself. Salvadorians faced intense hardships, even horrors, during the civil war and governmental instability of its recent past. The owner left his homeland during the war and for a while owned a Salvadorian restaurant in the New York City area. He moved to Charlotte with its burgeoning Latino population for the opportunity here.Pupusa Heat offers typical Salvadorian comfort food: a blend of sweet, salty and sour. The tables are filled with ex-pats anxious to have a pupusa send their spirits home and other Latinos who have learned how addicting these cheese pupusas can be. Though I've been there several times, I have yet to hear another English speaker. Fortunately, I have developed a rapport with the hostess, who now goes beyond "No se" to speaking Spanish lentemente (slowly) and has always made me feel welcome.

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