Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mary Restaurant

Firing the conchas on the plancha.

The first time I told my friend from Argentina that I liked conchas, he started laughing hysterically. Evidently in Argentina, conchas mean something completely different than the sugar-topped pan dulce they are in Mexico.

So when Paola asked me if I would like to eat conchas here in El Salvador, I wasn't quite sure what she was asking me. Did she know of my fondness for Mexican conchas from this blog? Or somehow know about my fondness of Argentinian conchas? I was afraid to ask!

Ingredients for the pupusas.

Turns out here in El Salvador, conchas are little, tiny shellfish - mollusk type creatures. For awhile, I though she meant conch (which I am fond of) but she described it as small, which eliminated the conch.

High above San Salvador and up a windy, switchback road is the restaurant known as Mary. Famous for their pupusas of cheese and frijoles refritos, they are also known for the special way they prepare conchas. In garlic and butter and cooked on top of a plancha.

A plateful of conchas with ajo and butter.

As the plateful (the first of multiples) landed on our table, I knew exactly what these little conchas were. In Hawaii, we call them 'Opihi and eat them raw. Delicious and salty little mollusks that cling to surf rocks and must be harvested by hand. I did a little harvesting when I lived in Honolulu - it's difficult but rewarding work.

And these conchas were delicious. Paola is wildly enthusiastic about the conchas and now we know why. Flavored with garlic and butter, they're placed on a hot plancha where they cook until they boil off. The texture is tender and chewy with just a hint of salt and the rich buttery goodness of garlic. Unbelievable. We consumed a good four platters of conchas.

Oooh, la la!

Next up, were the pupusas. Balls of maseca with refried beans and cheese rolled out flat and cooked on the plancha. Tasty and boiling hot. Top with some spicy pickled vegetables and salsa rojo and you've got a messy but tasty meal. Guzzle down some beer (or in my case Coke Zero) and you're really living up high above San Salvador.


< Pickled veggies and salsa rojo.

Camilo, Diego and Paola discuss the finer points of Conchas.

Eating Loroco

Fresh Loroco and Paola - in the grocery section!

Perusing the aisles of the local supermarket, I spied a bag of tortilla chips and asked Paola what she thought of them. Good, but only with dip. Hmmm, maybe that can of Frito-Lay Nacho Cheese dip but that seemed a bit wrong when in a place such as El Salvador. Paola's answer: Loroco Sour Cream dip.

Loroco? What is this Loroco? No one seemed to know. But here in El Salvador, it's wildly popular and they even sell it in the vegetable section. A visit to Wikipedia was sure to identify it as something well-known in America, but no - nada. Just some herb that's popular in this part of the world.

Loroco dip - pretty darn good.

In the dip, it's oddly familiar and quite tasty. In fact, I scarfed down half the tub and half the bag of chips. Paired with Coke Zero and it's a snacktime winner.

But I still have not real concept of what this Loroco really is...

Heat, Humidity and the Traveling Pants

Freshly washed, softened and ironed jeans ready for San Salvador.

Growing up in America, I'm predisposed to one particular item of clothing: shorts. In what I can only surmise is one of the greatest sartorial passions that our nation has produced (along with t-shirts), a pair of shorts is both comfortable and an expression of freedom.

The problem is that when you wear shorts in most countries outside of North America, you're instantly pegged as a tourist, and perhaps as "one of those people we don't want to associate with."

Travel to most any country in the world, wear shorts and the locals will think you're an "American" or worse: "Australian" - and God Forbid they might think you're English (especially if you're in Eastern Spain). Beyond the general disdain you'll feel in these nations, you'll also become a beacon for any and every kind of hawker, con artist and hustler that preys on unsuspecting tourists.

The one universal that seems to placate most every society is surprisingly another of America's great contributions to sartorial desires: the denim jean. Jeans are ubiquitous throughout the world. They're always in fashion and can even be worn to fancy restaurants (if you're part of the right crowd). Some countries demand that you iron and press your jeans with sharp creases (that's how they tell you apart in the Philippines) and you'll be chastised by your friends if your jeans are wrinkly.

The difficult part, for an American like myself, is that these tend to be nations where the weather seldom drops below 75F. Regardless of temperature, humidity or general weather conditions, these people believe it to be de rigueur to wear jeans (or long trousers) at all times. Shorts are to be left to those less than desirable types: poor urban youth or tourists.

So whether I find myself in Central America, Africa, South America, SouthEast Asia or whatever country that finds it necessary to hit me with 90 degree weather and 100% humidity, I'm resigned to going with the locals and donning my jeans to try to fit in with the local culture. Lest I desire to be marked as a tourist and meet all sorts of tomfoolery up and including kidnapping, ransom and extortion.

Of course, no matter how I may try to blend in, there's always something else that gives me away as a foreigner: fabric softener. But that's a tale for another day...

Running With The Shadows Of The Night

As the minivan lurches forward through the darkened highway, I notice the silhouette of my driver, Pablo's crewcut. He's chatting in rapid fire Spanish about the distance to San Salvador and I'm reminded that my Espanol no es muy bien.

It's scene that's both familiar and comfortable to me. Darkened roadways punctuated by the dim illumination of florescent lighting from the houses, slow-moving (or warp speed nearing) cargo trucks and the occasional group of locals walking along in the darkness. It's my first time to El Salvador and Pablo is gunning away at the engine and in Spanish. I think about asking him to slow down but ask him about midday traffic instead.

My seatbelt doesn't lock so I'm facing near certain doom or dismemberment if we crash into that crane truck lumbering in the right lane. It's 40 kilometers from the airport to the city - a city wrapped in heat and a touch of humidity. Stepping off the plane reminded me of arrivals in both Manila and Honolulu.

Inside the van, the A/C is blistering cold. I want to ask Pablo lower the fan speed but I don't know how. The cold air blows across my chest, threatening pneumonia. I adjust the vents away from my body and now they blow on my head.

Life is a blur when you travel. No matter how far, how long and how painful, travel always seems to be a sort of suspended animation. Ten hours ago, I was in cold Baltimore. Now I'm in a cold Toyota van where I've suddenly come to fear sickness more than at home!