If you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing a pupusa, it’s time for a trip to the nation’s capital. The pillowy corn pocket—born of masa harina (corn flour), then fattened with quesillo cheese, pinto beans and aromatic ground pork into a corpulent quesadilla-like griddle cake—is a citywide obsession. Pupusas were popularized by Salvadorans escaping civil war in the 1970s. As they grew into Washington, D.C.’s largest migrant group, the metro area’s hunger for this rustic, robust snack burgeoned.
When Haydee Vanegas arrived in 1988, she headed straight for Mount Pleasant, the nucleus of the Salvadoran community. “I love this place because it has a lot in common with me,” Vanegas says. Since opening her pupusa-intensive restaurant, Haydee’s, on Mount Pleasant Street, she has witnessed over three decades of urban transformation: family-run pupuserias giving way to cocktail bars; young professionals moving into million-dollar homes. Although it’s easy these days to encounter an artisan bakery or Filipino bistro while strolling the streets, Mount Pleasant remains distinctly Salvadoran to old-time residents like Vanegas: “It may have changed demographically, but it still has the same flavor.”
Aficionados aver that pupusas should never be reheated. It makes the wait worthwhile as each is made-to-order at Gloria’s, the cash-only institution a few streets away in adjacent Columbia Heights. The fluffy pupusas are textbook, although the accompanying curtido veers on the mild side.
Don Juan Restaurant
Atmosphere is the name of the game here. You never know when you might walk into a wedding reception, open-mic night or soccer game blaring from the screens. A neighborhood mainstay since the 1990s, Don Juan also features that coveted city find during temperate months: sidewalk seating.
The archetypal Salvadoran diner, Ercilia’s serves pupusas from breakfast until late dinner, with a side of Spanish telenovela for entertainment. All the traditional fillings are on offer, including loroco, the unopened flower buds of a Central American vine that smacks of chard but more closely resembles the tips of broccoli rabe.
Margaritas, fajitas and pupusas form the tantalizing trifecta that keeps crowds returning for more. That, and the deliriously joyful karaoke nights twice weekly. Owner Haydee Vanegas pours at the bar and her husband dons the apron in the kitchen, ensuring both food and service never slip.
The newest kid on the block is perhaps also the most celebrated. Ellē has breathed new life into the historic bakery Heller’s (even keeping the original signage) with its pastry magic: Think blueberry ginger scones and guava turnovers. The divine cocktails are the perfect start (or end) to a visit.