La Cocina de Mama Greta's location -- at the end of a side street in a modest commercial enclave in North Raleigh -- is hardly what you'd call high profile. Still, foodies have found the Salvadoran restaurant in sufficient numbers since it opened in February to have nicknamed the place Mama Greta's.
Those who manage to navigate their way past the maze of nondescript strip malls and through the restaurant's front door are greeted by a cheerfully inviting dining room whose cranberry walls are hung with colorful scenes of El Salvador. Given the restaurant's location, the sight is as startling as an errant primrose cropping up in a bed of gravel.
If you're lucky enough to be waited on by Emelda Castro, who owns Mama Greta's with partner Alfonso Turcios, the feeling of welcome is even warmer. Castro, whose mother the restaurant is named for, will enthusiastically chat about the food of her native El Salvador, explaining how dishes are made and making recommendations. She'll proudly tell you that most everything, including the corn tortillas that accompany entrees, is homemade. She'll note that the carne asada -- Mama Greta style, with avocados, tostones and a savory Salvadoran take on black beans and rice called casamiento -- is the favorite dish of her partner, also a native of El Salvador. And she'll warn you not to order too many pupusas, explaining that Mama Greta's are larger than most.
Heed her advice. With half a dozen filling options ranging from pork and cheese (my favorite) to an edible flower called loroco, and with prices around $2 each, it's tempting to order a varied sampling of these thick, soft corn tortillas. And because they're not as greasy as most versions, it's easy to fill up on them before you know it. Trust me, two pupusas, each served with a mild chile dipping sauce and cumin-tinged slaw, make a filling lunch. Count on one per person as an appetizer.
Better yet, share a pupusa and an appetizer order of pasteles, El Salvador's answer to Mexican empanadas, featuring shredded beef or a blend of chicken and vegetables in a flaky, crescent-shaped crust.
I'd skip the chicken tamale, whose plainness is accentuated by the fact that it's served without the banana leaf the menu says it's steamed in. Tamales de elote, deep-fried tamales that resemble giant hushpuppies with a softer, slightly sweet center, are marred only by the fact that they're not cooked all the way through. An appetizer order pairing crisp, golden fried yuca and crunchy nuggets of pork, on the other hand, is an unqualified success.
When it comes to entrees, I'd second Alfonso Turcios' vote for carne asada. But I certainly wouldn't pass up the chance for an encore performance of pargo rojo, deep-fried whole red snapper topped with grilled bell peppers and onions and served with casamiento and caramel-sweet fried plantains.
Mariscada, a meal-in-a-bowl seafood soup, is a mixed bag: The crab legs are overdone but the rest of the seafood is properly cooked in a broth whose brick-red color belies its relatively tame flavor. A more rewarding option for those in the mood for shellfish is camarones entomatados, which serves up a dozen or so jumbo shrimp sautéed in a bright tomato sauce. Jaded palates seeking a change of pace should find what they're looking for in salpicon, a distinctive salad of minced beef punctuated with mint, onion, cilantro and lime, served cold. There are a number of dishes I haven't sampled. I'm eager to try Salvadoran-style huevos rancheros (one of several breakfast offerings that are served all day), chicharrones de pollo and chayote stuffed with cheese in a tomato sauce. I'm looking forward to digging into a plate of carne guisada (beef stew) on a chilly fall night. And just once, I've got to try Mama Greta's special platter for two, which promises a gastronomic orgy of steak, grilled shrimp, pork, grilled chicken and ribs with all the fixings for $25.99.
Before that one, though, I'll definitely have to be careful about how many pupusas I eat.