Again, it's taken forever to post another IEM session. This time, however, I have a valid reason for the delay. In late September, I went back to school to get a certification to teach ESL to adults. Due to my my hummingbird-like attention span, I was always a lousy student. After being out of school for almost 20 years, studying is even harder for me than before. Having to devote brain power to my classes made it difficult for me to concentrate on writing about my life as a disgusting binge-eater. Luckily, I'm out of school until early January, so I have a little time to post IEM #13.
Something new is coming to Inhuman Eating Machine very soon. In the next couple of weeks, I'll do the eating for session #14. As soon as that's done, I'm going to start posting several short updates per week that detail my travails as I prepare for IEM #15. You may not know it, but I train tirelessly to get ready to eat again in earnest. I binge and starve constantly. As you can see, IEM session depictions are long. They take a while to write, especially now that I'm in school. It may take some time for me to get IEM #14 posted, but I think I can at least muster a couple of paragraphs 4 times a week with something like, "I ate an entire bag of clementines today. I gained 3 lbs. and now I'm crapping Orange Juliuses..." And then eventually the actual session will post, too. The chronology might seem a little weird, but that's the way it has to be. "Real blogs" are supposed to post regularly, not once every other month, so these updates are my concession to blogosphere etiquette. The aim is to tide you over until the next session and hopefully, get more people interested along the way. In theory, by the time I reach my fighting weight, it will be time to embark on another session.
The food I eat on these sessions is cheap, but it is not free. If I was gainfully employed, it would be no big deal to pay for eight sub-$10 meals once every 2 months. However, I was laid off almost a year ago and am trying to cut corners. If I could get some patrons to help finance my art, it would be a godsend. My PayPal donation address is firstname.lastname@example.org. If you can give anything to help keep IEM chugging along, I would be forever grateful. Any amount would be appreciated. I'll even acknowledge you here.
- $1-$4.99 = Totally Sweet Level
- $5-$9.99 = Completely Rad Level
- $10-$19.99 = Man, You're Awesome Level
- $20+ = I Just Shat My Pants Out of Sheer Gratitude Level
- It's a small Central American country whose people are largely despised by Mexicans.
- In the 80's, there was a civil war there between the military government and leftist rebels. The military, supported by the U.S., bombed suspected rebel strongholds, which led to "Stop Bombing El Salvador" bumper sticker being affixed to every Volvo in the Bay Area, circa 1987.
- It's the birthplace of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), one of the largest and most bloodthirsty street gangs going these days. They are the subject of a particularly disturbing episode of Gangland on the Discovery Channel.
Photos by Lily Chou (Some taken directly from the upcoming video)
Eating day: October 9, 2009
1. PUPUSERIA SAN ANTONIO- 30030 Mission St.- Hayward, CA- 11:15am- Mixta, Cheese-$1.95 each
Oh, the Oakland mom and pop restaurant. I try and support you. Nearly the entirety of IEM is a paean to you. Your idiosyncrasies endear you to me, but your ineptitudes are often mind-boggling. It seems that many of these establishments in town were opened by people who are in love with the idea of running a restaurant, rather than actually running one. Customer service is often aloof, if not hostile. Getting a glass of water can be next to impossible. The quality, quantity, and availability of food can be sharply inconsistent. The buildings are cold. Some are filthy. Why squander your life savings and then run your dream eatery half-assedly? Case in point, Lily and I left my apartment shortly after 10am so I could finally try the Salvadoran place on 23rd Ave. Earlier this year, it had been open for about two minutes. And then for six months, there was a sign on the window reading, "Closed for renovations." How could a brand new restaurant that barely had time to get its griddle greasy require renovations? I didn't think they'd last long in that neighborhood, but I thought they'd close due to excessive robberies or mismanagement, not because they needed new drywall. I was glad to see their grand re-opening sign and decided they'd be the first place I would stop on IEM #13. When I didn't see pupusas on the menu on their wall, I assumed the menu was for entrees only. When I asked the woman at the counter, not only did she tell me that they didn't have pupusas, she looked at me like she didn't know what I was talking about. It doesn't seem like a very good idea to omit the national food of your country from your menu when you open a Salvadoran restaurant in the USA. A Salvadoran restaurant sin pupusas might work in El Salvador, but here, it's a fool's errand.
Q. What do you call a Salvadoran restaurant in the USA that doesn't serve pupusas?
A. Closed in about a month.
After the anti-pupusa establishment, I decided to try Carmencita's on 14th. Ave. They're actually a Guatemalan-Mexican place, but they have pupusas on their menu and I've enjoyed their food in the past. We stopped by about 9:30am, but they were closed. This makes no sense, as they have a breakfast menu. There was no sign explaining the closure. Do these places want to stay in business? If so, they must have certain items (e.g. pupusas) on their menu and they must also adhere to their posted hours if they want people to drag themselves across town to visit their eatery. If someone gets burned once, they're probably not returning. Some people might suspect these places only exist as money-laundering fronts, but that can't be right. To launder money, currency must change hands.
We left Oakland, hoping for better luck in Hayward. The first place on my list in Hayward (Los Planes De Renderos) didn't open until 11am, according to their sign. We arrived at 10:50am. After getting rebuffed twice in Oakland, I wasn't going to wait around ten minutes only to have the proprietors stand me up. Famished, I decided to venture further into Hayward and return to the first location later. We drove down Mission St. When it seemed like we were almost to Fremont, we pulled over. I called Kelly and had her Google Map the address. I had driven about five miles past the destination. The place is in a strip mall set back from the road a little, so it was understandable that I had missed the turn.
I was about ready to gnaw off my own foot when we arrived. Normally, I would be happy that the pupusas here were made from scratch like they normally are. But in my comprised condition, I sort of hoped that they had pre-made specimens that they could throw in the microwave. The lady took her time patting out the masa. It seemed like hours until the food arrived. In addition to the pupusas, the woman delivered a see-through pail of curtido and a massive syrup container of the chile sauce. Normally, you get a little bowl of each of these condiments, so I wasn't sure if these were all for me, or if these were for the table. There was at least a quart of the curtido. It was extra crunchy, so it must have been prepared rather recently. It wasn't as spicy as the curtido you sometimes find, but it was a good counterpoint to the starch I was about to receive. Often, curtido is soggy when it sits its own juices too long. The cheese pupusa was loaded with what I assume is a Oaxaca/quesillo-type cheese, which is stretchy like melted mozzarella. The exteriors of both pupusas were cooked perfectly- neither excessively crunchy, greasy, nor doughy. The mixta (chicharrones, beans, cheese) pupusa was excellent. Often mixta/revuelta filling is a slurry with no discernable parts within. In San Antonio's filling, there were chunks that actually looked like meat. The filling was rich, so they must have used some seriously lard-laden refritos plus a big wad of hacked pork rinds swimming in fat. My first use of the chile sauce yielded an almost clear liquid that tasted like water with a trace of chile powder. Since the fluid in the syrup container appeared to be red, I decided to shake it up. After doing this, the sauce flowed much darker and thicker. It still wasn't very hot, but it had a pleasant tomato flavor.
I exited San Antonio ready to eat anew. I was wondering if the cabbage would provide a foil for the masa and pork fat I would eat throughout the day. Only time would tell if the curtido would work as an antidote to the heaviness or serve as an accelerant to induce even greater gastric distress.
2. PUPUSERIA Y TAQUERIA LOS COCOS- 29617 Mission St.- Hayward- 11:51am- Mixta, Bean & Cheese-$ 1.99 each
We drove back up Mission St. past the Hayward Holiday Bowl and nearly missed this place, too (once again hidden in a faceless strip shopping center.) After spying it, I still had to drive well past the joint in order to do a u-turn, due to a center median and heavy traffic on Mission. In Hayward, it apparently takes some serious commitment to eat Pupusas. At least all three places have parking lots. There is a Los Cocos on Fruitvale Ave. in Oakland. I'm not sure if the two businesses are related, but they have similar logos that both employ coconuts in lieu of the O's in their names. Los Cocos on Fruitvale is the first place I ever tried a pupusa, around 1996. For several years, it was the only game in town. The menu at Hayward Los Cocos' includes pupusas de arroz (rice pupusas), in addition to the usual choices. I had never heard of a rice pupusa. I imagined it was a standard pupusa stuffed with spanish rice. It sounded interesting. While the rice-load you get in burritos around here is an abomination, a sprinkling of rice inside a pupusa might be not be unpleasant. After playing a "Who's on First"-like game with the counter girl, I realized that the pupusa de arroz is NOT stuffed with rice. The dough is simply made of rice flour, rather than the corn-based masa dough. They are filled with the same stuff you get inside a standard pupusa. Due to the confusion during the ordering process, I wound up getting an extra pupusa gratis, which I took home to Kelly.
They brought some chips before the pupusas arrived. I knew I shouldn't be eating more starch, but it takes a mighty man to refuse free chips of any kind. The chips tasted "off." They were either stale, or they were those crappy tortilla chips sold at the Dollar Tree that taste funny even when fresh. It was a blessing in disguise. I hardly ate any of the chips, saving valuable stomach space. There was a large stainless steel container on the table with a latched lid; the kind that fancy coffee shops use to store ground beans. I opened the lid and discovered the can was filled with curtido. Maybe the big curtido container is a Hayward thing. Los Cocos didn't use a syrup container for their sauce, though, preferring a ketchup squeeze bottle. The filling of the mixta pupusa was adequate, but bland compared to the version at San Antonio. Also, the exterior was doughy. I prefer them cooked more thoroughly. The dough's consistency was like a tamale, which is not what you want with a pupusa. The pupusa de arroz filled with beans and cheese was far better. The beans were moist and lardy and there was ample stringy cheese, similar to the pupusa at San Antonio. What really set it apart was the rice flour shell. It had a texture best described as "qiu qiu" (Taiwanese for "chewy/rubbery.") Rather than crumbling apart like the their standard pupusa, this entry stuck to my teeth a little, like tapioca balls in a bubble tea. It was like eating fried mochi stuffed with beans and cheese. I don't know whether it was due to the rice flour outer shell, or just the absence of chicharrones, but the pupusa de arroz was far lighter than the standard pupusa here. Only a few places on the session had the arroz option, but I would not be surprised if I would have fared better on the session had I chosen that variety exclusively.
I finished the standard mixta pupusa after tearing through the rice pupusa. After I was done with both, I was surprised to feel a growing fullness. With the torta session, it made complete sense to feel weighed down early, as a single torta can weigh as much as 4 pupusas combined. It couldn't merely be dough weighing me down. Was there sawdust and brewer's yeast inside those pupusas? Mitch Cardwell claimed that I should be able to cruise through the pupusas like each one was a potato chip. He even went as far as asserting that 16 pupusas in a day was not a challenge at all. Dearest, Mitchell. Will you ever tire of being wrong?
3. LOS PLANES DE RENDEROS- 22841 Mission St.- Hayward- 12:48pm- Revuelta, Loroco Y Queso- $2.00 each
When we returned here, they had a decent lunchtime crowd of what I assumed to be workers from the nearby courthouse. East Bay pupuserias don't seem to draw many gringos. I surmise they are either too stupid to know what a pupusa is or they fear that every Salvadoran restaurant is in a "bad neighborhood." Los Planes' clienteles, however, were mostly non-Latino. Maybe it is only because of their location in downtown Hayward, but hats off to Los Planes for getting East Bay white folks to try the manna from El Salvador.
I'd only eaten four pupusas thus far, yet I received a slight rectal twitch shortly after sitting down here. With my microscopic timeframe for waste elimination, I figured I owed it to myself to investigate their facilities . There is a huge mural on the wall of a woman serving a platter of pupusas in a Salvadoran village. Other than that, there is not much atmosphere at Los Planes. But they have a large, clean, single-person bathroom located down a long corridor behind the dining room. All of these elements make for a wonderful bowel movement experience, so any decorating shortcomings could be forgiven. Once ensconced in this comfortable sanctum of defecation, I set out to determine if the twitch spoke the truth. Huzzah! The harbinger was as real as you or me. After a single coaxing contraction, the floodgates opened of their own accord. A half dozen oblong masses issued forth into the water. Each was larger than its predecessor, as if I had produced fecal-plated Russian nesting dolls with my anus. Not surprisingly, my fullness had subsided considerably.
This was my first experience with a loroco pupusa. Loroco is an edible flower/plant that is a common pupusa ingredient in certain regions of El Salvador. The crust of the loroco pupusa was ideal. It was greaseless. The color was a perfect golden brown. It was crispy outside, but soft inside- but not mealy/doughy like a tamale. The inside was stuffed with the usual stringy cheese and flecked with green pieces of loroco. Loroco doesn't look like a flower. It resembles chopped green onions and has a similar texture when chewed. Unlike green onions, though, loroco has no detectable taste. I am not certain why anyone would add these to a pupusa, unless they impart a nutritional benefits of which I am unaware. The loroco did not detract from the pupusa's overall grandeur, but it is hardly a necessary ingredient. The revuelta pupusa's exterior was the same as the loroco, but the inside was nothing less than a revelation. I can state unequivocally that this was the single best pupusa I have ever eaten. The filling had substantial pieces of what looked like the pulled pork you might find in a Memphis BBQ sandwich. The refritos were impossibly flavorful and they didn't go overboard with the cheese. This allowed the flavor of the chicharrones, which were seasoned with garlic, to shine through. With the intensity of the pork filling and the richness of the beans, this was a severely heavy pupusa experience, despite the lightness of its masa casing. Two revuelta pupusas here would challenge a mere mortal. Four would even be sufficient to satiate ME for a few hours.
Before you pooh-pooh the notion of coming all the way out here (13.8 miles from my door), you should understand something. For $4 and the cost of gas to Hayward, you can come to Los Planes and be fully satisfied. You will get full for the cost of one of your childish burritos.
4. SAN VICENTE- 1258 Davis St.- San Leandro, CA- 1:45pm- Bean, Mixed- $2.00 each
Following Mission/E. 14th St., it only took 15 minutes to drive from Los Planes to San Vicente, but when we arrived, I was as full as before I crapped at Los Planes. It wasn't hard to tell that San Vicente used to be a Chinese restaurant. The tables and chairs are mostly that tacky black lacquered wood stuff that they sell in those discount furniture stores on International Blvd. near Sinaloa. There were several paintings of cranes and cloud-covered mountains on the walls. All they were missing was a Confucius shrine and a Buddha behind the cash register.
The TV was playing a series of Spanish-language pop videos by a shirtless guy who looked like a cross between Fabio and Steven Seagall. I ordered a Kolashampan along with my pupusas. I generally eschew soft drinks, especially at restaurants, as it's a prime example of "how they get you." I don't see this delicious Salvadoran cream soda often, though, and I didn't want to miss out on this opportunity. Ordering a carbonated beverage during an eating session might seem unwise, but I ascribe zero blame to the Kolashampan for my forthcoming misery. The pupusas here were adequate, but unremarkable. The mixta's filling was lighter than Los Planes', but the reduced fat meant reduced flavor, too. There was less dough overall on the outside, which made the filling somewhat visible through the dough. The exterior of the bean pupusa was identical to the mixta option, but the filling was unique among all of the pupusas of the day. It was filled with black beans. You don't see frijoles negros much outside of the Carribean- and El Salvador does not have a Carribean coast. Go figure. The black beans were a nice change of pace, but better in theory than reality. The bean filling was rather bland. I appreciated that the black beans were lighter than refritos, since I was doing a session, but they should have seasoned them more to compensate for the lack of fat. This goes for the mixta pupusa, too. The curtido had quite a few shredded carrots in it and a good deal of onions, which added a little more zing then some offerings. It was served in a bowl with an Asian-looking floral pattern on the side- further proof of San Vicente's Chinese restaurant past. The sauce was quite mild, even though I had asked for the hot sauce. Eight pupusas into the session, I started to suspect that pupusa sauce isn't supposed to be very picante. The sauce adds a little flavor and helps to moisten the masa (or rice flour) crust, but it doesn't seem like they really want it to heat things up too much.
After finishing both pupusas and much of the curtido, I was feeling sluggish, distended, and gassy. I was not in great shape, but I felt I should attempt another pair of pupusas before resting. We lingered at San Vicente for a little while why I allowed my gut to reorganize itself and Lily finished the budin (bread pudding) she had ordered. I realized that the program-length video playing on the TV was a Spanish-language rip-off of R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" saga. We watched in amazement as the video showed both male and female ass. The female lead showed her breasts and revealed her ass again and then we left.
5. PUPUSERIA ILOBASCO- Truck on Maritime St. across from Horizon Shipping- Oakland- 2:50pm- Revuelta, Cheese- $1.75 each
I learned about the pupusa trucks near the Port of Oakland from Mitch Cardwell shortly before he was laid off from Horizon, a shipping company at the port. There are a few of these trucks on Maritime St., so I decided to try Ilobasco, the truck closest to the entrance to Horizon. There is no designated legal parking on Maritime St., as far as I can tell. If you get a ticket while parking next to one of these trucks, don't say I didn't warn you.
There was nowhere to sit near the truck, so I decided to take the food to Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, a park on the bay with gorgeous views of both the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. We sat on a picnic table. I remove the foil from the paper plate. BOOOOOM! I looked up and saw two fighter jets cutting through the sky. I had forgotten that it was Fleet Week in SF. Normally, I'd be impressed with jets flying in such tight formation above the bridge, but my only thought was, "JESUS, these pupusas look greasy!" On the plus side, the curtido was crunchy and had a lot of cilantro in it. There was a puddle of sauce on the plate, but it looked like Tapatio, rather than the homemade stuff I'd received everywhere else. Perhaps it's too labor intensive to prepare the sauce on a truck. Unfortunately, they didn't give me any silverware with which to eat my pupusas or curtido, so I had to eat the whole thing with my hands.
I picked up the first pupusa and dipped it into the sauce. The first bite of the revuelta pupusa elicited an explosion of grease into my mouth akin to the spewage of a pork-flavored jelly doughnut, if such a thing existed. The flavor was more pronounced than the revuelta at San Vicente, but the grease quotient overrode any of those flavor benefits. The cheese pupusa reminded me of pizza from Rocky Rococo's, a former employer of mine. Rocky Rococo baked their pizzas with a pool of oil on the bottom of the pan, giving the crust the consistency of day old funnel cake. Every bite of the cheese pupusa sent more grease flooding into my mouth. If these were the only pupusas I had eaten during the day, I could handle them with aplomb with some level of enjoyment, even. I'm not beyond greasy foods, but after eight previous pupusas, Ilobasco's pupusas were like a finger down my throat. I teetered on the precipice of vomiting several times while I attempted to finish this pair. I was so close to retching, I had to stop eating just a few bites shy of completing the duo. To avoid calamity, I was forced to pause and continue later, even though this meant that the last few greasy bites would be cold- never a pleasant task.
I was full, to be sure, but not like during the torta session, where the volume of food was much greater. It wasn't that my stomach was filled to bursting. There was another element at work here to cause me such disquietude. There was something else taking me so close to the realm of regurgitation. It was a mystery. Shortly after the session, I would posit a hypothesis regarding this conundrum. More on this later.
6. PUPUSERIA LUPITA- 3340 Foothill Blvd.- Oakland- 7:50pm- Revuelta, Bean $2.00 each
I let Lily go about her business while I writhed in agony at home, awash in a blanket of decomposing pork mist that crept ceaselessly from my anus. Every secretion reminded me of how close I came to failure. As usual, I drifted in and out of consciousness. When I awoke for good, my hunger had not yet returned, but the feeling of impending vomit had subsided. I felt I could handle the remainder of the pupusas from Ilobasco. When I unwrapped the napkin in which I had stored the leftovers, I noticed that some of the grease had solidified on the surface. It brought me back to my childhood...
I remember staying overnight once at Pete Catland's crappy townhouse. There was a cold pan sitting on the stove there with a big hardened chunk of bacon fat sitting on it, reserved for future use. In later years, I learned to appreciate the glory of bacon fat, but back then, seeing that stuff sitting there unrefrigerated, looking like a melted shabbos candle- it grossed me out. And it made me think that gentiles were a bunch of sick motherfuckers.
Luckily, there wasn't too much of the pupusas left to eat and I polished off the remaining bites in seconds. Lily had come over to film me eating those last morsels. We watched TV for a while until some modicum of hunger returned within me. At that point, we called Mitch Cardwell to see if he wanted to come along for the remaining stops. Not only did he agree to accompany us, but he offered to drive us around in his hybrid. I felt like an aristocrat.
I had recently seen a sign touting pupusas outside a castle-like building on Fruitvale Ave., so I wanted to try that place first. When we arrived, there were lights on, but no sign of a restaurant. We went in the front door of the castle and found it deserted with no sign of a pupusa restaurant. Then a guy came downstairs. He told us there used to be a lady who sold pupusas from a cart inside the fence in front of the castle. Unfortunately, local merchants didn't like the lady hanging around and had her 86'd. All that remained in the castle was a cafe that operates only during the daylight hours and a place upstairs which sells and services remote control cars. It's a well-known fact that every man, woman, and child loves remote control dune buggies, but I think I'd rather have the pupusa lady back.
Lupita's has been our go-to place for pupusas since Kelly moved in with me in 2000. In those days, it was either Lupita's or Los Cocos for pupusas in Oakland. Since parking is easier on Foothill, Lupita's got most of our return business. Their food has never disappointed and the staff is always friendly there, but I've always wondered how they've stayed in business all these years, as we are usually the only people dining when we visit. Like Sinaloa, I'm guessing they make the bulk of their money from their truck, which is in a small parking lot on the side of the restaurant. The truck is never overly crowded, but it has a steady stream of customers. Anthony Bourdain's went to Lupita's truck when he did an Oakland side-trip on the SF episode of No Reservations. I visited the truck about a week after the show first aired. I fully expected to see a line of foodies a mile long, but only saw a few loathesome twenty-somethings there. They were jabbering that they hoped that the food would make the trip to this "sketchy area" worthwhile. Perhaps the 'hood kept away the a-hole contingent, preventing Lupita's from receiving a significant "Bourdain Bump" in business. In these troubled times, a place like this could use the extra traffic, even if it's a bunch of lamewads from North Oakland with skinny jeans, scarves, and ironic moustaches.
We were waited on by Lupita herself. When I came by the truck after the Bourdain episode, she comped me an entire pupusa, even though I was there for tacos. This time, she comped us two entire chicken tamales! With a restaurant as empty as hers, it's shocking that she's giving away these kind of samples. I hope she knows what she's doing. In my condition, I had no intention of eating a full tamale, but felt I owed it to Lupita to at least take a taste. This tamale was like none I've ever had. You know how the masa in tamales is usually kind of crumbly? The corn in Lupita's tamale was smooth and moist throughout and had significant chicken flavor. This might sound a little unappetizing, but the dough was almost gelatinous, as if the chicken chunks were floating around in masa Jell-o. Somehow, it all added up to make the most delicious tamale ever. (Note: I returned subsequently for a pork tamale. It wasn't nearly as good as the free chicken tamales she gave us during the session, so keep that in mind when ordering.)
The pupusas were both a little too doughy for my tastes. They were skimpy with the pork in the revuelta pupusa. The refritos in the bean pupusa seemed lighter than usual. They may have even been made sin manteca! This was welcome so late in the session, but it would have rubbed me the wrong way under normal eating conditions.
Here's a cynical theory. What if Lupita is cutting the fat/lard in her recipes to lure more of the strange gringos that showed up after her truck appeared on Bourdain? (Further evidence: the curtido was made with RED cabbage- the cabbage millionaires eat.) If this theory is true, I can't say that I blame Lupita, but after eating the revuelta at Los Planes de Renderos, Lupita's pupusas seemed just so-so. Without Los Planes, I'd have nothing but praise for these pupusas, but how are you supposed to go back to Steak-Ums once you've had Kobe beef? I asked Lupita if her restaurant is affiliated with the Lupita's further down Foothill near Mi Pueblo. She told me that it's owned by her daughter. Since Lupita Junior's place is a little too deep in East Oakland to attract the kind of shitheels you see in Temescal eateries, it's possible that she's felt no incentive to discard her buckets of lard just yet.
7. OTAEZ TACO ROOM- 3872 International Blvd.- Oakland- 8:49pm- 2 Revueltas- $2.00 each
8. PLATANO- 2042 University Ave.- Berkeley- 9:23pm- Revuelta, Zucchini and Cheese (rice flour)- $2.25 each
I was pretty stuffed, but thanks to Lupita Sr.'s dietetic pupusas, I had none of the regurgitory urges I experienced earlier. As mentioned before, I had a revelation shortly after the session. CHICHARRONES ARE FRIED SKIN. Say, "Duh!" if you must, but when they're ground up in a slurry and mixed with beans and cheese inside masa, they don't seem very skin-like. I've figured out in recent years that fried skin is my gustatory nemesis. I am able to eat fried chicken with the skin without issue, but only in "normal people" portions. When I eat it in the portions I'm accustomed to, it makes my stomach start to quease. And then I get a light head that borders on a Yacqui-like altered state. About a month ago, I finished off a 3/4 lb. bag of fresh chicharrones snacks from Mi Pueblo's hot food deli. They were delicious, but I wound up in the same hallucinatory condition as after I eat an 8-piece box from Popeye's. This led me to realize that the near-puke experience I endured during the pupusa session was due to the fried skin in the revuelta/mixta pupusas. You'll see my predicament for yourself soon enough. There's a scene in the upcoming video where I get up and jerk around like Carlos Castaneda on a peyote vision quest. Mitch desperately wants me to do a fried chicken session. That amount of skin would surely land me in a puke-filled rubber room.
At this point in the session, things became complicated. Unlike taco and torta places, East Bay pupuserias do not stay open late. Finding one open after 9pm is practically impossible. I had lost several hours after the West Oakland truck incident, effectively eliminating at least 5 destinations from my list. After Lupita's, I figured we should try Otaez first and then return to Carmencita's.
Otaez is really two separate Mexican restaurants divided by a walkway that houses both their bar and a check cashing station/Western Union office. One side of Otaez is a sit-down place. The other side is what I call the "taco room," specializing in tacos, tortas, and burritos with some hard to find meats, e.g. suadero. I had heard that the taco room now has pupusas- uncommon for a Mexican place. I was concerned when I didn't see pupusas listed on their wall menu. Desperate, I asked the lady behind the counter if they did indeed have pupusas. Luckily, they had them, but why weren't they listed? Is the Otaez pupusa a secret item that you have to know about in advance, like Animal Style fries at In N' Out, the shrimp papaya salad at Banh Mi Ba Le, or John Dillinger's 15-inch cock at the Smithsonian? I was happy that, for once, I was in the know. Otaez has a self-service salsa bar, where they also house their curtido. The cabbage was swimming in liqiuid all day, so it was understandable that the curtido was somewhat limp, but it was spicier than most. I ordered the pupusas to go so I could get to Carmencita's as soon as possible.
I called Carmencita's to see what time they closed and got no answer. It's possible that they had closed for the day already, but it's more likely that they never even opened, as they were closed when we stopped there at 10:30am. I really want to support that place, as it's so close to home, but they just keep fucking up.
I figured that Los Cocos on Fruitvale Ave. was probably still open, since it's in the heart of Fruitvale, but when we drove by, just a few minutes past 9pm, they were closed, too. Oakland is hurting for late night eats. Would it kill a pupuseria to stay open past 9pm? Sure, they'd get robbed every now and again, but that hasn't stopped the taquerias from operating until as late as 2am in some cases. There's a tradition of hatred towards El Salvador and Salvadorans from Mexicans. Why not win some points to counteract the ill-will by serving pupusas until at least midnight?
Since Carmencita's and Los Cocos were closed and I could not think of another Salvadoran place that might still be open in Oakland, I decided to give Platano in Berkeley a call. If they were closed, I'd have to scrap the session, as I was one pair short of the eight-establishment minimum. Amazingly, they were open until 10pm, an hour later than even the most daring pupuseria in Oakland. On the way there, I went to work on the Otaez pupusas. They weren't as greasy as the ones from the truck, but there was some significant glistening happening there. The insides didn't taste as heavy, though. It had an interesting pork flavor that led me to believe that they used something other than chicharrones. Since pupusas are an also-ran at Otaez, it's possible they substitute carnitas for chicharrones so they don't have to carry an additional meat just for their secret pupusas. Carnitas are not exactly a "light meat," but compared to fried pork rinds, they're practically health food. The pupusa crust was a little scorched, which may have caused too much fat to seep through the masa, thus rendering it greasier than it should have been. Otherwise, these were above average pupusas.
Platano is the fanciest place I stopped on the session, which is not surprising considering its location near UC Berkeley. They've got Ikea-style lighting, wooden tables with matching chairs, expensive-looking tile flooring, and a skinny blonde Caucasian waitress. There is a $7 minimum for dining in, an effective way to keep the riff-raff out. Pupusa has nine choices for pupusa filing, each available with either a masa or rice flour dough shell. Pupusas here cost $2.25 each, which is very reasonable, considering their location. I was expecting to pay much more.
Since my two-pupusa order was well below the $7 minumum, I took the Platano pupusas home along with the remainder of the Otaez entry. I was much less full than after the Lupita's pupusas. I started on the Otaez pupusas first to try and finish them before the fat solidified on the outside. At room temperature, 90 minutes after cooking, they were still quite edible and I was able to finish them with little difficulty. With some latent heat remaining, I tasted both Platano pupusas. I tried the zucchini with cheese first. The rice flour shell was as chewy as the one I had at Los Cocos in Hayward, but the similarities ended there. The cheese was not at all pupusa-like. It wasn't stringy and dense like the quesillo I'd been getting all day. It tasted like a cross between brie and melted cream cheese on a bagel with little bits of zucchini on top. Not bad, but it didn't taste "Latin." The revuelta was a disappointment. The filling was so bland it could not even compete with the flavor of the masa. It was just a bunch of anonymous goo. The curtido, though, was crunchy and tart.
I was about halfway done with the pupusas when I felt yet another rumble in my digestive corridor. I excused myself and produced a ruthless duke that bore no sign that it had come from an intestine, other than the slight crimp on the end. It was a flawless brown hose with no fibrous bits protruding. This was surprising, given the amount of cabbage I'd consumed.
The evacuation made the remaining bits of pupusa go down easier. Having said that, the pupusas I ate towards the end of the session weren't as challenging as the ones earlier in the day, anyway. I would have eventually handled them all, even if I had gone turdless late in the day. Receiving revuelta pupusas with a lower skin content on stops 6-8 really made a big difference. Yes, masa dough is heavy, but I contend that it had little to do with my difficulties. I place the blame squarely on the shoulder of Los Chicharrones. Had I been eating pupusas that contained zero pork rinds during this session, I believe that I really could have eaten them almost indefinitely. As Mitch said, it would be just like eating potato chips.
NEXT TIME: Special Ex-Wife Challenge