Wearing a frilly apron, Cecilia Pacheco scoops her fingers into a bin of cornmeal dough, draws out just the right amount, and begins moving it quickly between her hands, turning and shaping, slapping and smacking. Without pause, she grabs some refried beans with the other hand, then chicharrones (a paste of fried pig skin, tomatoes, green onions, salt, and garlic), and a handful of shredded mozzarella, pressing each into the dough until it’s enveloped in a ball. In one swift movement, she pinches off the excess dough, flattens it into a pancake, and lays it on a smoking hot griddle.
This is what it takes to make a pupusa, the gem of Salvadorian cooking, and the specialty of El Pulgarcito, the restaurant Pacheco owns and operates with her husband, Mauricio Castro, on Kennedy Road north of Lawrence. Their shop has drawn pupusa lovers from all over the city for the past dozen years.
The two met and married in San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital city, and both worked for Pacheco’s family catering company, selling pupusas, fish, and steaks to hundreds of manual labourers every day. From 1979 until 1992, El Salvador endured a brutal civil war between the U.S.-backed military government and leftist guerilla groups. By the time peace arrived, the country had become so pervasively violent that they fled for Toronto in 1993.
“I worked in a factory, making metal for keys,” says Castro, who remembers that Scarborough was home to a decent-sized Latin American population back then. That community has since moved west, nearer to Downsview. “We first had to learn the language, go to school, and get to know the market.”
Slowly, they got back into the pupusa game, first making them for consulate meetings, then weddings, and finally to sell in a local El Salvadoran grocery store a few blocks north of the current location. There, the pupusas took off, and in 2001, they bought the supermarket, and soon the adjacent restaurant, where they opened El Pulgarcito.
The current restaurant is the second location, a bright space in a former donut shop, painted blue like the country’s flag, with a giant oceanfront mural on the wall, and soccer playing on three televisions. By the kitchen, where Pacheco works, there’s a needlepoint of women selling pupusas in a market, and a sign by the register that instructs customers that three pupusas is the minimum amount per order. They sell up to a thousand each week.
Other dishes fill out the menu, including Mexican favourites like enchiladas and burritos, fried whole fish, tamales, and steaks. On the weekend there are soups, and they serve a hearty all-day breakfast of fried eggs, deep-fried plantains and sour cream, along with a side of refried beans that have been reduced to a silky paste, almost like a salty chocolate.
The pupusas, however, are the real draw, and they emerge from the kitchen in baskets, stacked like flapjacks. Each one is moulded by Pacheco to the exact same size. “The taste is in the hands,” she says. “I can make pupusas with my eyes closed, but not everyone can just come in and do it. It’s very difficult.”
The most popular variety is the triple threat of beans, cheese, and chicharron. It’s thick and puffy, with crusty ridges from the grill giving way to a creamy centre of gooey melted cheese and a savoury, warm filling that’s surrounded in soft dough and served with a pitcher of tomato purée and a side bowl of cortido—a tart vinegar coleslaw of cabbage, green onion, and carrots—which cuts through the grease. Castro recommends splitting open a pupusa, filling it with the condiments, and eating it with your hands.
There’s also a loroco pupusa, made with an edible green vine flower that’s native to El Salvador, which has a mild flavour, almost like zucchini. It’s mixed with salty feta cheese and mozzarella.
Since the restaurant opened, much has changed at El Pulgarcito. “First we were selling pupusas almost entirely to Latin American customers,” says Castro. Today, the customer base is incredibly diverse, and the menu has grown.
The other shift has been physical. A lifetime of pounding pupusas, not to mention running from freezer to stove and back, has left Pacheco tired, sore, and with arthritis in her wrists. (She and Castro work without any servers or kitchen help at the moment.) A big Tylenol bottle in the kitchen is a constant reminder of this. The two of them are regretfully considering selling El Pulgarcito to another family who can carry on the tradition.
“At first, I didn’t like this business,” says Castro, sighing with exhaustion. “But the people who come in here to eat are a thing of beauty.”
El Pulgarcito, 1210 Kennedy Rd., 416-916-7274.