>> Don Lencho | Eat the World Los Angeles

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Don Lencho

EL SALVADOR 🇸🇻
Normandie Avenue facade

COVID-19 UPDATE: All customer areas are outdoors on a tented patio. Staff is still wearing masks for the most part.

If you have ever spent any time in El Salvador and Central America, away from the resorts, using public transportation and going to restaurants that local families patronize, walking into the back patio of Don Lencho will immediately bring back memories. While the (now unused) walk-up window in front speaks of California, there is no greater portal to the Pacific Coast of El Salvador than the dining area of this grilled fish specialist in South Los Angeles, just a block away from Harvard Park.

Even the tin-forward surfaces of this Salvadoran mainstay speak of the shacks along the coast that feed locals and travelers alike. Football is usually on the small television, the smoke from the grill is partially trapped underneath the roof, and the flies pick on the discarded bones of at least one grilled fish from every table. If you did not hear the singing and soul-saving amplified from storefront churches along busy Normandie Avenue and see the stacks of tires at the used car lot next door, Don Lencho would fool you into thinking the beach was close.

People lined up for takeout orders

One of every five reviews online is from someone that has bad things to say about the neighborhood or the environment at the covered outdoor restaurant, but how many places these days can say they have been open since the early 90s? They have expanded their reach without really expanding the kitchen, so there can be a wait, but the staff is friendly and drinks like marañón (seasonal), chan, and horchata are nice to sip on in the meantime.

Half of the flavor of most items here come from the mesquite grill that is basically in the center of the patio but unseen behind a wall. The smoke circling its way out is a constant reminder that they are hard at work and your order is going to make it. You can start to see and smell this smoke as you walk up to the restaurant if you have not parked in their tiny lot.

A Sunday order at Don Lencho

Weekends are usually busier here, with specials of sopa de gallina on Saturdays and sopa de pata on Sundays. Some couples might be at a table here and there, but most wrangle the whole family or a group of friends to share as many of their big plates as possible. The menu is quite small and focused, so it does not take much energy to choose your order.

The sign in the front should guide your decisions on your first time visiting, Don Lencho claims to specialize in mojarra asada and as a pupuseria. Pupusas ($3.75 each, below) come in standard corn or rice flour for a quarter more. Unfortunately there is enough ambient noise that you do not hear them being patted out when ordered, but when they arrive a napkin might be required to catch the drool forming on your lips.

2 Pupusas

Pupusas have a dark char on them from getting the same treatment as the meats over mesquite. Like you can imagine, that flavor is in every bite, especially the beautiful burnt oozing cheese that has made its way out of the masa during cooking. They have all the standard options like loroco, chicharrón, frijoles, and do them all very well, but make sure to cover them in the house-made curtido and salsa that comes with each order.

This cabbage relish is slightly fermented and full of sharp flavors and crunchiness that complement the tastes and textures of a pupusa perfectly. The salsa de tomate is not spicy at all but is delicious nonetheless. Orders of pupusas to go include generous amounts of both, showing how much the place insists on quality and how proud they are of everything.

Mojarra asada

The specialty of the house and something you see on every table almost without exception is the mojarra asada ($20, above), a split tilapia grilled over mesquite and served simply on a paper plate with a cup of beans like your favorite joint in La Libertad does. The "marinade" is probably just a bit of salt, but the combination of this, the mesquite grill, and a chef who cooks every fish perfectly make this full of wow factor.

Anyone can deep fry a fish, the reason mojarra frita is ubiquitous on the menus of Central American and Mexican menus. This fact makes Don Lencho stand out and worth coming from all around Greater Los Angeles to enjoy.

Carne asada plate

If you have enough people or can resist an order of mojarra asada on a second visit, the three other grilled meat options are as satisfying as expected coming from the same grill. A carne asada plate ($16, above) is a good start, a thin fatty cut of beef with plenty of black char and infused smoke. It may be a struggle with the plastic utensils, but honestly the joy already a part of the table is enough to forget all that.

The rice and beans that come with these plates could be described as workaday, nothing special but definitely go well with chunks of the meat. The house salsa will come with each, so you will not have to ration it if those tastes make you appreciate everything more.

Chorizo plate

A chorizo plate ($15, above) comes with five small connected links of the cured and spiced pork sausage, also charred from the grill and served with rice and beans. The interiors of these are purposefully a bit dry but the combination of paprika, garlic, green chile, and onion will bring the taste of back home to a Salvadoran's mouth.

The restaurant also does a grilled quail, which will be added here if ever sampled as will be the weekend soups. You can get grilled corn and atol de elote as well, but not much more. This is the secret of Don Lencho, who knows what they do well and makes sure every order is always just right.

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