THE BITE: After wrapping up my visit to the Brighton Jubilee this weekend, I walked up Coney Island Avenue and passed one the neighborhood’s staple Mexican joints, Tacos El Rey (3168 Coney Island Avenue). It had been a long time since my last visit, and I spotted a sign in the window declaring that the kitchen now offered up pupusas, a traditional Salvadoran treat that has long been unavailable in this area. I had to give it a try.
With a sister-in-law of Salvadoran heritage, I’m no stranger to pupusa – but this neighborhood sure is. Think of it as a pan-fried pancake made of cornmeal and stuffed with beans, cheese and other assorted awesomeness. It’s been made in the Central American nation for nearly 2,000 years, but remained the secret of a small hamlet until migration carried it across the nation, then to bordering countries and to our shores over the past half century or so.
The fillings vary depending on regions, but cheese, pork and refried beans are usually on the menu (individually, or mixed). At Tacos El Rey, they also offer shrimp, chicken, and “queso y loroco,” cheese mixed with a vine from a Central American flower bud. The restaurant charges $5.00 for a plate of two, with shrimp costing $8.00.
Disappointingly, Tacos El Rey was out of loroco when I stopped by. So I went with beans and cheese and the revuelta – a blend of chicharron, cheese and beans.
It took some time to arrive at the table, suggesting it’s not a frequently ordered dish at El Rey and had to made from scratch. To bide my time, I ordered a limonada ($3.00).
If you’re thinking this is the lemonade you grew up on, you’re wrong (well, unless you’re Latin American). It’s made from freshly squeezed key limes, some water and a liberal amount of sugar – and then blended with ice into a heavenly froth. It is a spectacular refreshment on a hot summer day.
Just as I slurped the last drops through my straw, the pupusa arrived piping hot, followed by the traditional sides of curtido – think spicy, pickled cole slaw – and a runny tomato-based salsa.
The outside was crispy; perhaps a little overcooked to some, but just how I like it. And the cornmeal dough was grainy and a touch sweet; again, how I like it.
In hindsight, I regret ordering two fillings that were so similar. They were at first difficult to tell apart. Those that are thinking of chicharron as deep fried pork rind beware – although it shares the same name, Salvadoran chicharron is simply cooked pork meat, and in the pupusa it’s ground to a paste and mixed with the beans. While I couldn’t tell the two apart by looking them, the revuelta had noticeably more flavor.
After a taste, I heaped the salsa on top, followed by a mountain of the slaw and blissfully dug in. As good as the pupusa was alone, the curtido was the perfect companion, accentuating the grain’s sweetness with vinegar and a spicy bite. The salsa, unfortunately, added little flavor or heat and just seemed to make my pupusa wet.
The verdict? While it’s not the best pupusa I’ve had, it’s the only one I’ve seen south of Prospect Park and I’ll definitely be returning to satisfy my occasional cravings. And it was a damn good approximation – much better and more authentic than I had expected for a Mexican restaurant.
Tacos El Rey, 3168 Coney Island Avenue (at Brighton Beach Avenue), (718) 769-0116.
The Bite is Sheepshead Bites’ column exploring the foodstuffs of the Sheepshead Bay area. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.