When the sign in your window proclaims "Pupusas, Best in the Fan," you'd better be able to back that up.
The thick corn cakes with warm interiors oozing savory fillings are griddled to a golden brown and served with the pickled, fermented cabbage and carrot dish known as curtido and a thin tomato sauce. As any fan of the national dish of El Salvador will tell you, pupusas are an all-day kind of food for Salvadorans, and that includes breakfast.
At El Pope Latin American Cuisine in the Fan, pupusas are the stars. Whether you're a devotee of the classic corn cakes or a newbie, you can't go wrong ordering the pupusa mix ($9). Try to be patient, because the staff is preparing them to order, grilled until golden and puffed up. One each of beef, pork and cheese made up the mix we were served and I'd be hard-pressed to say which was the most memorable. Scratch that — my favorite is always whichever one is most misshapen by the little circles of escaped cheese, melted and browned to perfection on the griddle.
And just so you know, the polite way to devour your pupusa is with knife and fork. But far better to go rustic and tear off a piece of pupusa, add a little curtido, a dollop of sauce and eat it with your hands.
But pupusas aren't the only things on the menu at El Pope. Meals begin when a basket of warm, freshly fried plantain chips are dropped off with a chunky house-made salsa that smacks of ripe tomatoes and jalapeños, a stellar combination that will make you forget all about the gratis corn chips and runny, red salsa that kicks off far too many Latin restaurant meals.
Topped with green sauce, tender, sauteed shrimp and bits of crabcake fill a shrimp and crab sopapilla ($12) that resembles a burrito more than a traditional fried sopapilla. But names aside, the flavors are easy to like and the biggest problem seafood lovers will have is trying to finish the giant serving, which is accompanied by rice and beans. The menu also extends to fresh fish, including entrees of mahi-mahi ($18), rockfish ($18) and grouper ($19), along with filet mignon ($18).
When only a sandwich will do, the pork torta ($10) on bollio bread satisfies with red onion, cheese, avocado, pickles and jalapeños for just the right amount of raciness. Even heartier is a dragon burrito ($13), swollen with bits of steak, rice, beans, tomato and jalapeño sauce and notable because it arrives — wait for it — wrapped in bacon.
Tacos come two to an order and can be filled with pulled chicken ($10), carnitas ($10) or tilapia ($11). Overstuffed to the point of taxing your jaw, the juicy, tender pork of the carnitas attests to the kitchen's time spent braising the meat. If you're like me and prefer your fish tacos grilled rather than fried, consider the tilapia tacos, which sing with the lighter flavors of pickled cabbage, guacamole, pico de gallo and jalapeño sauce. A spritz of lime and they make for good eating.
The restaurant's name comes from chef Mario Albanes' nickname, and although El Pope celebrated its first anniversary in September, the little Fan joint has been flying somewhat under the radar despite its prime corner location on Main Street. Inside, the space is simple and contemporary with booths and tables, a standard bar and Spanish music playing. Service is low-key, but every one of our questions got a knowledgeable answer and a return visit to ensure we were happy.
Richmond boasts so many stellar restaurants it can be challenging to keep up with every neighborhood place that opens. On the other hand, who doesn't appreciate discovering a local eatery that doesn't break the bank yet consistently delivers?
If it's a good reason you're looking for to check out El Pope, how about this: National Pupusa Day is the second Sunday of November, so this year it'll be celebrated on Nov. 11. In El Salvador, towns all over the country celebrate by holding competitions to create the biggest pupusa.
While it may not be the biggest, you're unlikely to find a better pupusa in the Fan than El Pope's. S
El Pope Latin American Cuisine
Tuesdays and Wednesdays 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., Thursdays – Saturdays 10 a.m. – 11 p.m.
1731 W. Main St.