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Reviewers salivate over Salvadoran cuisine

on December 9, 2019

The smell of simmering spices pervades San Pablo Avenue as hot aromatics mingle with the cold morning air around the buzzing, open kitchen. Pots and pans clink in counterpoint with the different accents and dialects of Spanish. Pools of beans and bubbling meat boil in tall cauldrons, heavy for even four arms to carry. Hands palm the tortillas with expertise, piling the masa dough-pocket with different fillings, some even bursting on the stove as the cheese melts. 

Taqueria La Bamba, standing at the forefront of the main street, opened roughly 30 years ago. Its walls are painted a neon blue, in homage to the Salvadoran flag. The shop accommodates about 50 diners, who have made pupusas revueltas, thick corn tortillas stuffed with cheese and pork, the most popular of its dishes. 

Revueltas

The kitchen is dominated by workers of Mexican and Salvadoran descent, several of whom immigrated to the United States years ago. In La Bamba’s savory cultural milieu, food is the nostalgia of home. 

“When I am making food here, I think of my home…It makes me want to go back,” said cook Helda Figueroa as she wets the dough. 

Each deft pat to the dough imparts a bittersweet memory of a different land. Perhaps it’s the reminiscence making it taste authentic. Figueroa originally emigrated from El Salvador years ago. She has been making pupusas since she was a little girl, she recalls, tucking strands of brown hair now fading into gray. She has been cooking in the La Bamba kitchen for over ten years, mirroring the technique her mother taught her. 

Helda Figueroa cooking

Everything in their tiny open kitchen is in line with traditional techniques. “We have brought our methods here,” said waitress and cook Marina Castillo, another Salvadoran immigrant. She points out how, uniquely among Bay Area Salvadoran eateries, this Richmond area kitchen uses water instead of oil to make their pupusas, just as it is in done in El Salvador. Sticking to the authentic method, meat cakes are flipped only three times on each side, searing it to a crispy exterior enclosing molten perfection inside, every time. 

“It is all about the enthusiasm and loving the meal you’re making,” Castillo said, linking food and passion. In her homeland, Castillo said making and eating pupusas are a “conexión familiar,” a cornerstone for connecting with family.

Staff busy at work

Being an essential part of the Latino fabric of Richmond, the bright restaurant attracts people of different backgrounds. “We came all the way from Fairfield just to have it,” said regular Anna Rosales, as she and her daughter bite into revueltas, and queso con jalapeño, cheese and jalapeño pupusas. 

Maria Arriaga, a Mexican immigrant, has been working as a waitress and cashier for more than 10 years at the location. “I love to work around people,” Arriaga said. “Many people who come say, “Hi, Maria (with familiarity), it makes me feel good as a worker.” Castillo too mentioned how people from Latino communities frequent the joint, creating and reinforcing familial bonds with another through food. 

Maria Arriaga

People in El Salvador typically have the dish morning, noon, and night. It starts with a handmade tortilla made from masa flour, a practice that can take years to master. Once the thick white dough has been flattened, one adds fillings and then rolls it into a taut ball. The orb is then flattened into a thick disk right before being slapped onto a hot pan. Pupusas revueltas have stretchy melted cheese and fried ground pork with a firm and chewy texture. The revueltas are often eaten with curtido, a tart blend of shredded cabbage and carrot fermented in vinegar, to balance the heaviness of bread. 

Besides pupusas, the restaurant offers platanos, chile rellenos, burritos and tacos. The wide range of authentic Latin American food is reflected in the array of workers from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. With a staff of 12 and customer lines stretching out the front door, operations at the restaurant hum like a well-rehearsed tune.  

Pupusa, tortilla chips and curtido

People are sure to be going back for thirds—if they haven’t already. 

Taqueria La Bamba is open most days, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., with service starting at 10 a.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.

Translations provided by David Rodriguez.

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