Hooray for the low comedy created by linguistic differences! Errors in translation are one thing—I will always love that a mistake led to Coca-Cola being translated as "Bite the Wax Tadpole" in China, for instance—but sometimes a word just sounds funny when it's adopted by a new language with its own history of genital- and bodily-fluid- naming. Perhaps we've passed the time when it's okay to mock a foreign word because of an awkward glottal stop or an unfortunate vowel movement, but my inner 3-year-old isn't quite ready to join the global 21st century and give up the childish giggling. I am thinking here of Wagyu beef, crab Rangoon, pupu platters, and, more recently introduced to my lexicon by way of El Salvador, the pupusa.
I first encountered the pupusa at Guanaco's Tacos Pupuseria's University District location, an unassuming (read: ugly fluorescent lights, generic tile floors, very reminiscent of a convenience store) location off the Ave, next to Hillside Quickie and not a whole lot else. Despite—hell, perhaps because of—the place's name (connoting not just regular "pupu" but also guano!), I was curious about the pupusa. My other voyages into non-burrito Latin American foods around Seattle (pozole, tlayuda) have ended in great satisfaction, and so I figured the odds were good that I'd wind up being a fan.
I was right. Pupusas are incredible inventions—part quesadilla, part pancake, a savory stuffed puck of cornmeal and gooey fillings. And the pupusas at Guanaco's ($2.80 each, $7.70 as part of a combo plate) are among the best in town, with maybe only the Salvadorean Bakery in White Center as a contender. Though they're fried, the cheese, cactus, and zucchini pupusas still feel light and fluffy on the inside, with just the right amount of crispness on the outside. The vegetables keep the center of the pupusa from getting too dense with cheese, and when the whole thing is doused in Guanaco's salsa verde, the result is a surprisingly fresh and healthy-seeming fried meal. If your tastes are more carnivorous, you should lean toward the spicy pork; the chicken in the pupusas can become a bit too stringy after frying. And don't be afraid to pile on the toppings—Guanaco's doesn't charge extra, and a pupusa should be as many flavors as possible jammed into a very small package.
When Guanaco's opened their Capitol Hill location in the Alley Mall in 2010, the University District restaurant suddenly seemed even more unassuming. Like a couple other spots in the Alley—Hana and, especially, Kimchi Bistro's uncompromising, affordable Korean food—Guanaco's is a simple, cheap restaurant experience, but a gratifying one. It's cozier in there than the northern edition, and the lack of harsh lighting makes everything seem friendlier. If you have the luxury of choice, head to Broadway; if you're in need of good Central American food on the Ave, you'll be happy to have the Brooklyn Avenue option.
Much of the genius of Guanaco's is in the fryer. The pastelitos ($5.50 for three) are flash-fried balls of beef, onion, potatoes, and carrots, a good-old-fashioned American meal ground up into a sphere and dropped into bubbling hot oil. And while the boiled plantains are a bit too mushy, the fried plantains ($6.75) are a wonder. They have the texture and shape of jo-jos, but with a faint banana-like taste that makes an excellent foil for Guanaco's spicy dipping sauces. The empanadas ($5 for three) are the dessert version of the pastelitos, stuffed with plantains and sweet cream, then dusted with cinnamon.
The dishes that Americans are more likely to recognize as traditional Latino food are here, too. The burritos ($7.50) are very good, even though they don't add much of anything new to the burrito experience; saying that you could get an equivalent burrito at Rancho Bravo isn't by any means an insult, just a statement of fact. Likewise, the tacos ($2.95–$3.50) are crammed full with quality fillings like pork, chicken, and a breaded, fried mahimahi fish stick. Guanaco's employs a few nontraditional fillings, too—including, improbably, bratwurst. The bratwurst taco is basically nothing more than a giant hot dog wrapped in a tortilla; the more fulfilling choice is the burrito caliente ($6.50), a burrito wrapped along the sausage. If they charged three times the asking price, they could call it fusion, but instead, it's just a collision of great tastes that makes sense.
Guanaco's offers a variety of plates at low, low prices, and the meals are usually served with rice, beans, and a house salad, which is more of a crunchy, vinegary slaw. (One recent visit to the Brooklyn location unfortunately resulted in a side of black beans that were slightly crunchy; in all my years of eating there, I've never encountered such an aberration before, but if you want to play it totally safe, you might want to order refried beans instead.) While the enchiladas Guanacas ($7.50) are less like the enchiladas you've come to expect and more like hard-shell tacos, they're still a highlight, along with the cheesy stuffed chili pepper ($7.90) and tamales ($5.85). Or you could just order all of it eventually; Guanaco's Salvadoran culinary pride and surprisingly deep menu absolutely rewards return visits.
But what is a guanaco? According to Guanaco's Tacos Pupuseria's website, it's "1. A large South American cameloid mammal (Lama guanicoe) of the Andean dry plains: wild ancestor of llamas. 2. A native or inhabitant of El Salvador [syn: Salvadoran]." You can stop giggling now (or not).