Favorite Finds

Restaurants You Shouldn't Miss

Chumikal's

3223 E. Seventh, 385-8898

Mon-Thu, 6am-8pm; Fri-Sat, 6am-9pm; Salvadoran menu served Fri-Sat nights only

El Sabor

1141 E. Seventh, 236-1180

Mon-Thu, 10am-9pm; Fri-Sun, 10am-10pm

If Austin Tex-Mex leaves your taste buds unenlivened, but you still hanker for the fiesty flavors of Central America, then visit Chumikal's or El Sabor, both of which serve delicious Salvadoran cuisine a mere frog's leap from downtown. Residents of Austin may still know Chumikal's by their previous moniker, Chubby's, which was abandoned after a Dallas restaurant chain sued them for the name. Not to be intimidated, though, Chubby's changed their name to Chumikal's and continued on with business as usual. Now there are two Chumikal's in Austin, one on East Seventh Street and a new one on MLK Avenue near campus. Only the original location, however, serves Salvadoran specialties.

On Friday and Saturday nights, Chumikal's regular hamburger-and-french-fry menu gives way to a more unusual array of choices featuring Salvadoran favorites that evoke makeshift vending stands set amidst the dust and chaos of an urban Central American street. Pupusas, pasteles, and banana leaf tamales star on the menu here. For those unfamiliar with this largely undiscovered cuisine, the pupusa is practically the Salvadoran national dish -- a fried masa cake, stuffed with cheese, meat, or beans. Not unlike a true Mexican quesadilla, the Salvadoran pupusa is the type of snack one might purchase in an open-air market from a woman who pats them out by hand then fries them over a cast-iron comal. With fresh tomato salsa or with some fiery cortida (a spicy, vinegary cabbage slaw), just two or three pupusas will leave your tongue dancing and your stomach satisfied. Salvadoran pasteles (meat-filled pies) and tamales also tease the senses with a unique combination of flavors. Unlike the corn husk Mexican tamales generally sold here in the U.S., a Salvadoran tamale is steamed in a banana leaf and stuffed with chicken, olives, and oregano. The corn masa that forms its bulk is more finely ground, making the effect surprisingly light. Chumikal's Salvadoran dinners all feature fried yucca and sweet fried plantains on the side, which are tastiest dipped in crema. Less sour than sour cream, the thick Salvadoran crema is more similar to French crème fraiche: buttery, gooey, and almost cheese-like in its texture.

For those who miss the weekend excursion to Chumikal's, El Sabor serves Salvadoran cuisine every day. Their more extensive menu offers a broader range of specialties, in addition to the standard street fare: pupusas, tamales, and pasteles. There's the carne deshebrada (shredded beef), which crackles with the lip-smacking tastes of slow-cooked beef stewed with onions, vinegar, and achiote. Or try their camarones con arroz (shrimp with rice), a generous mound of moist saffron rice, cooked with garlic, tomatoes, onions, and perfectly prepared jumbo shrimp. For a mere $6.99 there's not a joint in town that will serve you this many well-cooked crustaceans in one plate.

Meanwhile, find out who really invented polenta by ordering the atol de elote. Thousands of years before the Italians had ever heard of corn, Central Americans from Panama to Mexico prepared this cornmeal mush as part of their staple daily regime. Other traditional specialties such as fresh corn tamales with cream, or chilate con nuegados en dulce de platanos (a glutinous corn and cassava drink served with sweet fried plantains and corn pastries) will certainly satisfy that craving for exotic indulgences. All plates are accompanied by a crisp salad of lettuce, tomato, and onion, tasty yellow rice, and El Sabor's special creamy red beans. Not quite like black beans or refried beans but something in between, El Sabor's smooth red beans barely whisper sweetness through the husky flavors of meat and cream -- que rico! Other more familiar specialties at El Sabor include fajitas, chile rellenos, and a broad variety of soups. Located on East Seventh Street only a half-mile from I-35, El Sabor easily lies within earshot of the downtown music festivities. Fun alternatives to Tex-Mex, both El Sabor and Chumikal's offer inexpensive and unusual fare to those willing to travel to new culinary destinations.

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