Food Trailer on Airport Nails Salvadoran Tex-Mex
SalvaTex’s pupusas, my dudes, are nothing short of incredible
Reviewed by Emily Beyda, Fri., Aug. 3, 2018
Salvadoran food was a tradition in my house growing up. Every Sunday, my dad would stop by the old ladies who slung pupusas over on Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles and pick up a stack of bean and cheese pupusas with slaw and crema. The combination of that crunchy cabbage with the soft savoriness of masa is Proustian for me, and profoundly reassuring. So, of course, when I saw the lines of trucks advertising homemade Salvadoran Tex-Mex cuisine parked outside a trailer on Airport, I knew I was duty-bound to check it out.
The first thing you should know about SalvaTex is that it might be a little difficult to visit. They're closed on Sundays (good for them, frankly) and when we visited during the week we found their window shut because they had gone home early. Most days they're only open until 5pm, so unless you're taking your pupusas to go, you're going to end up sitting in the full summer sun eating hot melted cheese. You may or may not get bit by the fire ants that, when we visited, were lying in wait under a back table. The second thing you should know is that it's worth it. SalvaTex exemplifies the kind of home cooking that makes so many of Austin's trailers great. The ladies who run it are unfailingly kind and cheery, and their lipstick and hair is somehow flawless in the blistering steam heat of the trailer. They are almost maternal in their enthusiasm for getting their customers fed. And the pupusas? The pupusas, my dudes, are nothing short of incredible.
It's hot (of course it is), so before we decide on pupusas, my friend and I spring for a couple of aguas frescas. I get a classic horchata, and she goes for watermelon, which I am pleased to discover is surprisingly not too sweet. At its worst, watermelon agua fresca can taste like a melted Jolly Rancher over ice, but this is lightly flavored and refreshing, like a real watermelon squeezed into a glass rather than some artificially flavored imitation. The horchata, on the other hand, is slightly oversweetened, gritty with ground-up rice and spices, but has a lovely strong cinnamon taste, which makes it feel more like a dessert than an appropriate accompaniment for lunch. The bucket-sized Styrofoam containers they came in were big enough that I had about a gallon to take home with me, and combined with iced coffee, an unexpected bonus.
Refreshed by all that ice, we get down to the business of pupusa sampling. We settle on a classic trio on the recommendation of one of the women in the trailer who struggles to describe what loro actually is: jalapeño, cheese, and bean; pork and cheese; and a loroco and cheese. "It's a vegetable," she says, when we ask. "A flower. It tastes ... I think you just have to try it to know what it tastes like." I can see what she meant when it arrives. Loroco is the edible flower of a climbing vine that grows wild all over Central America. If you, like I was, are expecting this means it has a delicate, floral, squash blossom taste, well, you would be wrong. It has a vaguely medicinal taste, something like a mix of camphor, onion, and the strong minerality of wild oregano. The thing it reminded me of most was the smell in the hayloft in my grandmother's dairy barn, a mixture of the fresh green scent of hay and something wetly animal, dankly alive. A singular taste, to be sure, but not an unpleasant one. It's like nothing I've ever had before, and that alone makes it worth trying.
The other pupusas were a little more approachable. The jalapeño, cheese, and bean was almost like a classic melty Tex-Mex bean and cheese burrito in pupusa form, all runny and juicy and savory rich with lard, the pickled jalapeños providing a welcome snap of vinegar heat. The pork and cheese was tender but crispy, with queso blanco oozing out of the cracks in the thick corn dough and going crispy thin on the griddle, clinging rich to the strands of slow roasted pork. All three pupusas came with little plastic bags of slaw as well as two salsas, a smoky red tomato based one and a thin green sauce made from spicy jalapeños and cilantro. The slaw was incredibly spicy and salty, with an intensely slow-burning heat that reminded my lunch date of a Thai green papaya salad. It's a nice accompaniment to the fatty richness of the fillings, but you'll need a pretty big swig of horchata afterward to cool your mouth off.
But it's not all pupusas at SalvaTex. They have homemade tamales with some of the most delicate masa I've ever had, smooth as custard and delicately flavored with the umami tang of tomato purée. The banana leaf it's wrapped in gives the masa a slightly tannic flavor, with a bitterness that contrasts beautifully with the rich filling of moist poached chicken and potato cubes, just soaking up all that sauce. And then there's the Salvadoran enchilada. For the uninitiated, these are more reminiscent of Mexican tostadas than our Tex-Mex concoctions of soft tortillas wrapped around a savory filling and topped with sauce. In a Salvadoran enchilada, the tortillas (homemade here, and fried alongside the pupusas so they sop up some of that delicious grease) are crispy and fried flat, topped with a protein of your choice (I went with al pastor, savory and citrusy with a thick garlic fug) as well as creamy sauce, cotija cheese, refried beans, sliced hard-boiled eggs, and a giant pile of chopped tomatoes and iceberg lettuce. This creates an amazing mélange of flavors and textures, the warm chewy meat, the creamy beans and cheese, the super-crispy funnel cake texture of the fried masa. It's like a taco salad died and went to heaven.
As we finished up our lunch, I noticed that pretty much all the orders are to go. Young men rode up on bicycles, families pulled up in minivans, and everyone rolled off with big bags full of Salvadoran deliciousness. Next time, I'm going to do the same: Pupusas are the ultimate picnic food, after all, and what could be better than sipping that massive watermelon agua fresca with your feet in the water of the Colorado? On your way out, leave a big tip and say a little prayer for the sweaty saints frying up all those pupusas. While the food may be heavenly, that trailer looks hotter than hell.