>> Pupuseria Comalapa | Eat the World Los Angeles

Sunday 10 March 2019

Pupuseria Comalapa


EDITOR'S NOTE: An updated version of this article (08 December 2023) is available as part of the Historical section of our Substack page. Check that out here:
While the area of present day Bell Gardens has a history spanning centuries with indigenous peoples then Spanish then as part of Mรฉxico, it was named in the 1920's like its neighbor Bell after some white settler James George Bell. Before that it was known for some of the most fertile land in the area, part of a floodplain that attracted immigrants from Japan who turned some of it into rice fields.

Besides being home to one of the last two remaining Pioneer Chicken restaurants, nowadays Bell Gardens is home to 95.7% of people who identified on the 2010 census as "Hispanic or Latino of any race." As such, there is a high concentration of Central Americans and especially Salvadorans, with pupusas not hard to find anywhere on this side of the Los Angeles River.

Across the street from that Pioneer Chicken is a pupuseria at the back of a small strip mall named Bell Gardens Plaza. Comalapa is named for the municipality about 40km southeast of the capital San Salvador that used to also be the name of its international airport, a hub which features prominently on the menu here.

The dining room is full of everything guanaco you could imagine, starting with a large flag and plenty of blue paint. Frames, prayers, and touristy objects all hang from the walls slightly askew. No matter whether the restaurant is empty or full, there seems to be just one person running the entire dining room, which is a point of contention noticeable from online reviews, but come here with some time and an open mind and you will not be disappointed.

After you put in an order for pupusas, you will hear the distinctive "pat, pat, pat" of the discs being made fresh in the kitchen before getting put on the grill. This is a comforting sound somehow, full of love. If you are not Salvadoran, maybe it taps into a previous life when you were, the sounds of the kitchen as heard by a child.

Often times at pupuserias, small dishes of curtido, the essential fermented cabbage side, and a tomato salsa arrive with your order. Here they don't play, as a gigantic container of each shows up and makes rationing unnecessary.

If you notice a very slight difference in color above (and more closely below), that is because the pupusa on the left is made from rice flour instead of the more "normal" corn. Often times Salvadoran restaurants can make these but do not advertise them on the menu, sort of a need-to-know basis for folks that might want them. They are worth trying if you have not before, a full shift in texture and flavor profiles. The rice is dense and chewy, but with a slightly sweet and more subtle flavor than corn, allowing the ingredients to shine through just a touch more.

The history of rice pupusas are anecdotes that range from necessity during corn shortages to the ease and inventiveness of Salvadoran people, but as these lands of Bell Gardens used to be growing rice, it is at least interesting to ponder and appreciate while you wait for them to arrive.

Either way you prefer them, they are terrific here.

<--- RICE / CORN --->

Make sure not to order more of the rice variety than you can eat at this sitting though, for they absolutely cannot be warmed up later. When rice pupusas cool, they turn dense and undesirable, and will have to be thrown away.

Horchata de morro ($2.25, below) is a distinct Salvadoran style of horchata made from ground calabash seeds and very earthy. As I thought more about the rice fields, for a moment I could almost taste the grain again.

While this is the original location, the owners also now have a second location down in Bellflower which seems to get the same amount of positive attention for their food.


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