Perched on a hill rising above the U.S. 183 frontage road, in a strip center on the northeast corner of Cameron and 183, sits Costa del Sol. Serving Mexican – but more importantly, Salvadoran – food for the last six years, it moved to bigger digs in the same strip center about a year and a half ago. The room is shaped like an "L," with a counter and a few tables on the short leg and most of the tables situated along the longer leg. Maps and posters of El Salvador adorn the walls, and a CD jukebox blares out soulful native Latino beats. The crowd is predominantly Salvadoran and Latino, with the native language dominating. Not to worry, the two charming servers also speak excellent English and explain the menu superbly.
We spotted the Salvadoran section of the menu immediately and ordered it all. Pupusas ($2) are the empanadas/gorditos of El Salvador, except lighter, more delicate, and better in every way. Two disks of corn flour pastry envelop various fillings – in our case, a white cheese and that same cheese with loroco, a vine flower from Central America that tastes like a mild green chile. These are served with a mayo-based slaw of cabbage, onion, and carrot and are perhaps the best pupusas in Austin.
The pork tamal ($2) is light and fluffy, as if egg white and lard had been whipped with the masa. It is huge and filled with savory shredded pork. Keeping in the pork department, the fried yucca plate ($6) is magnificent: crisp and light fried yucca chunks, not in the least greasy or heavy in any way, paired with tender golden-brown pork cubes and a salad.
Stewed meat ($8.95) is the best carne guisada that you have ever eaten. It's cooked with tomato and aromatics to produce a smooth reddish-tinted sauce surrounding meltingly tender pieces of beef. Rice, beans, ripe avocado slices, and an onion and tomato relish come with. The plátano platter ($6) is made with sweet plantain (the ominous-looking black ones you see in Latino markets, as opposed to the starchier yellowish plantains with black spots). Cooked perfectly, with a caramelized exterior, a wonderful sweet-tart flavor, and yielding flesh, they come with a big puddle of crème fraîche and refried black beans.
The chicken with grilled onion ($8.95) was the only letdown of the feast, and not because it was bad in any way, but simply because it wasn't as good as its superlative feast-mates. A nicely cooked chicken breast is smothered with a tomato-based sauce of grilled onion and green peppers. Accompanying the platters are the requisite rice (with corn, peas, and carrots) and delicious, rich refried beans (cooked with lard, unless I missed my guess). On each table are baskets of light, crunchy tortilla chips and a quite zippy salsa, and then when the food arrives, a crock of curtido: a crisp, vinegary cabbage-and-onion slaw that's a perfect foil to the richness of the food.
On weekends only, Costa del Sol offers sopa de mariscos, a huge bowl of seafood soup with lumps of blue crab, shrimp, fish, and vegetables that we saw other tables of Salvadorans hunched over; it looked amazingly tempting, and had we known about it, we would have ordered it. The restaurant also features mondongo, its weekend-only tripe stew with calf's feet, tripe, plantains, and vegetables, which is a renowned hangover cure. If you're a beer drinker and want to be authentic, order the big bottle of Suprema Regina or opt for the Pilsener Famosa.
For the cuisine of El Salvador, Costa del Sol definitely needs to be on your short list. It's filling and a bit rich for these sweltering days of AusTex summer, but the food is inexpensive, authentic, and exceptionally good.
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