Notes from my review of the original El Cuscatleco in Durham, back in the spring of 2004, indicate that I sampled widely across the Salvadoran menu over the course of three visits. Carne guisada, a hearty Spanish-style beef stew, was evidently the hit at the table one night. Ceviche, not so much. I noted that the tamal de pollo was lukewarm, guessing that it was because it was served without the promised banana leaf wrapper.
But I don’t need notes to remember El Cuscatleco’s exemplary pupusas. Pancake-thick corn tortillas with a savory filling (cheese, or a combination of cheese and beans, chicken or – my favorite – pork) and griddled to a char-mottled turn, they struck me as quintessential comfort food. And I’d have taken comfort in them many more times over the past ten years, if El Cuscatleco had been closer to my home in Cary.
Now they are. And you won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve paid multiple visits to the new location that opened last September in Cary. It’s my duty, I tell myself every time I go back, to give a full and accurate report on one of the mere handful of Salvadoran restaurants in the Triangle – and the only one in Cary. If I happen to score a couple of pupusas along the way, what could it hurt?
By no means, however, are pupusas the only attraction. In fact, my go-to meal at El Cuscatleco is the Plato Tipico, a combination platter featuring a large tamal (still sans wrapper, but now consistently hot and generously filled with juicy shredded chicken), pollo pastelito (think empanada, but with a crunchy cornmeal crust), fried yuca and first-rate fried sweet plantains.
If I’m really hungry, I’ll go for the Bandeja Savadoreña, a trencherman’s delight of grilled skirt steak, chicharrones (here, they’re more like carnitas than the pork skin cracklings you may be thinking of), a chunk of a mild white cheese called queso Salvadoreño, and an egg (unless they’re out of eggs, in which case you’ll get rice).
OK, yes, I admit it: Both of these combinations also include a pupusa, along with its traditional accompaniment: curtido, a coarse-cut, salsa-dressed slaw that plays tangy counterpoint to the pupusa’s earthy, corn-musty goodness.
El Migueleño is another combination platter that caters to carnivores – in this case with fried pork ribs (deeply flavorful, though the smaller ribs on the end can be dry), grilled chicken breast and shrimp (unremarkable, except for the fact that they’re served head-on).
I haven’t yet tried for an encore performance of the carne guisada that wowed our table a decade ago, but I’m happy to report that the ceviche is much improved.
For that matter, the menu does ample justice to El Salvador’s long Pacific coastline with a seafood offering ranging from fried whole Salvadoran-spiced tilapia to camarones entomatados, shrimp in a mild tomato sauce. Camarones Acajutla, named for a port town, serves up a smoky-spicy medley of grilled shrimp, onions and tomatoes in chipotle sauce.
As at the original El Cuscatleco in Durham, the Cary menu hedges its bets with a fairly extensive selection of Mexican fare. Tacos, burritos, chimichangas, fajitas, even Tex-Mex combination platters – you’ll find them all here.
In a number of instances, it isn’t clear whether a dish is Mexican or Salvadoran. Mi Mariscada, for instance – a tomato-based seafood soup chockablock with shrimp, mussels, scallops, squid and lobster – could have originated in either country. Trust me, you’ll be so content as you’re patting yourself on the back for splurging on the most expensive item on the menu ($15.95), that you won’t care where the recipe came from.
(Word to the wise: If your meal comes with tortillas, get the corn. They’re made in house.)
The kitchen does stumble occasionally. Chicharrones can be dry, and seafood varies in quality (though I hasten to add that I’ve never had anything off-tasting here). Judging by the grainy flan I was served recently, desserts are no more worth the calories than they were 10 years ago in Durham.
The compact dining room is furnished on a shoestring budget – here an Aztec sundial, there a framed mirror advertising Corona beer – but it’s pleasant enough. Service is friendly and efficient, though understaffing can at times cause minor problems.
It’s the food you’re here for, anyway, and you certainly won’t lack for winning options. Whatever you choose, you’ll want to know that pupusas are only $1.75 la carte.