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Edible Underworld

The Taste of Freedom



Imagine the pupusa, if its name can even be spake! That glorious golden disk stuffed full with secrets. That high fences might keep this wonderful thing from integrating into our culture is a shame.

But we're not here to talk immigration; we're here to talk integration. Specifically, of Hispanic culture into Virginia's well-manicured society. More precisely, the cuisine of those fine peoples to the south.

It's like this: Virginia's struggles with racial equality have been considerable, but now soul food is a proud member of the culinary community, and you can go out in our enlightened town and pay top dollar for a bowl of collards. So it's no surprise that the integration of comida autAcntica is similarly slow.

But change is on the shelves of the Latin markets that dot Hull Street, Jefferson Davis Highway and points north. If you see the Bimbo truck (that's the one with the cute bear on the outside, the small pastries on the inside) parked in the lot of somewhere like Mexico Mini Mart (7411 Jefferson Davis Highway) or La Milpa (6925 Hull St.), and you'll know you've arrived. These places are split in twain: One side is a market, stocking items as diverse as leather boots, cans of Goya products and, of course, the multitudes of dried things — nuts, seeds, chilies, mummified shrimp.

Some of these ingredients go into the preparation of food on the other side of this place, the diner area, where menu items are illuminated on boards for your linguistic convenience. At Mexico Mini Mart, where bottles of Jarritos soda (flavor: tutti-frutti) are drunk with enchiladas verdes and barbacoa de res. Where the barbacoa is tender, where the enchiladas — tangy and fresh and full of chicken — are graced with cilantro, sour cream and onion, and are not drowned in sauce, and the flavors can breathe because, of course, they're all closer to home.

A lot of Mexican restaurants give people sombreros and burro pi¤­'­s hanging from the ceiling — maybe because that's what diners expect. But you're not eating stereotypes. Who goes to a French place where the waiters have berets and tiny mustaches? As Latin culture comes in, the character of the food should develop as well. In the meantime, there will be growing pains.

Which brings us back around to the pupusa, in its roundness the perfect symbol of continuity, in its stuffed-ness the ideal of a full and rich life.

Found at Happy Mart (5761 Hull St.), this Salvadoran staple is about 3,000 years old (pupuserias now pop up on many American corners), a pancake of masa stuffed with either cheese (queso), a mixture of cheese and pork (revuelta) or the bud of the loroco vine. These are served hot with a mild tomato sauce and curtido, a pickled cabbage that brings together these flavors like a smart immigration plan. And the tamales thick as pillows! Hailing from Guatemala (chicken-filled), El Salvador (stuffed with chickpeas, chicken and chopped potatoes) and Mexico (beans, meats and chilies), they give us a cheap way to visit Latin America.

The immigration debate isn't over, of course, and the gathering of Hispanic cultures into Virginia's country-club buffet is a long time coming, but those that are already here have some valuable truths for us, usually found just past the Aisle of Dried Things. S


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