In some parts of the country – on the West Coast and the DMV area in particular – it’s common to see Salvadorian and Mexican cuisines tied at the hip. Menus where pupusas and quesadillas co-exist abound, perhaps because it makes good business sense for restaurateurs catering to beginner palates (Mexican dishes provide an easy entry point for people not as familiar with El Salvador’s cuisine). But in NYC, where there’s been an explosion of excellent regional Mexican of late, you usually have to go to the outer boroughs to hunt for Salvadorian food.
Randy Rodriguez, the man behind new LES Salvadorian spot Cabalito opening today, hopes to change that. “I found myself having the same conversation over and over again,” he says. “People these days pride themselves on being ‘foodies’ and are always out looking for new cuisines to try, yet almost no one I’ve asked had ever actually had a pupusa.” After working for years in the restaurant industry, most recently managing a popular Mexican taqueria in NoHo, Rodriguez felt inspired to bring to the city a piece of his own culture’s traditions.
Salvadorian food, like most Central American cuisine, was born from the fusion of the indigenous Pipul culture with Spanish colonial influences. Based mostly around grain ingredients like maiz, beans and the Loroco flower – a wild green plant reminiscent of artichoke – it is hearty, heavy on starches, and famous for its fresh, peppery repollo.
We caught up with Randy a few days before the opening of Cabalito, a slim little joint located at 13 Essex Street in the LES, adjacent to Cafe Grumpy – to hear about what it takes to make a good pupusa.
What inspires you every day?
That’s a very good question. Everything inspires me, honestly. I think the movement of New York City keeps me motivated. It never stops. Ever since I moved here, I’ve kept moving. The city itself and the people living in it, is what keeps me on the go every day. There are people who are doing exceptional things, which inspire me to have my goals be higher and be constantly working.
When did you move to NY? How long ago?
I moved to NY in 2010. Roughly 5 years ago. Yes, I’m from Vermont. I was born in California, but moved to Vermont when I was 10. I consider Vermont my childhood, the place where I grew up, went to high school. It was very relaxed and peaceful during my upbringing, which clashes with the movement here.
So when you moved to NY, was that when you decided to connect with your roots?
Yeah, I think that’s accurate. Immediately when I started working in restaurants here, I started to see how everyone was unique and had different backgrounds and identified with their own culture.
In a few words, how can you explain the culture and traditions in the food of El Salvador?
I think we could learn from the hospitality of the people of El Salvador. It’s not common for someone from New York to be that aware about El Salvador, so I think it gets left in the shadows. The Pupusa is like the unofficial staple of the food of El Salvador. It’s everything when you get there. We are known for very little, and pupusas are high up there representing us in general. When I tell people I’m from El Salvador, they answer “Oh yeah. I’ve had pupusa before,” if they know El Salvador at all.
So tell me a little bit about the pupusa. What are they, how are they made?
They’ve been rooted back to before the Spanish came. It can be presented as a Gluten-free option (made from Nixtamal Masa which is gluten-free), filled with either pork chicharron, beans and cheese, and or loroco, a plant that only grows in El Salvador or Guatemala. And it’s something I want to elevate in a dish as well. They are always served with a slaw made of cabbage and carrots, marinated overnight, fermenting it with Salvadorian flavors. But I want to branch out from the traditional preparation and create my own unique style. The “Cabalito” style.
Why the name the restaurant Cabalito?
It originates from Cabal, a Salvadorian slang word. It means “on point” or “right on.” It rolls off the tongue to the point where it’s almost over-used in El Salvador. So I added the “ito” diminutive to it, because it sounds pleasant, it’s Salvadorian.
So are your pupusas “cabal”?
Yes I hope so [laughs].
So why here, why now?
Oh, that’s another good question! Well, I grew up in California and the pupusas scene is a lot stronger out there – there are a lot of West Coast Salvadorian restaurants that are successful. Then I moved to New York, and realized there was a simple business model in the West Coast that isn’t as common here. I’m not inventing the pupusa, I’m just trying to bring it to the heart of the city.
What’s your vision for Cabalito?
I want Cabalito to put a good name of El Salvador forward, and I want people from New York to get a cultural experience of the country through eating here.
Can you tell me a little about the recipes? Are they your family’s recipes, Salvadorian recipes, a mix of both?
It’s mostly Salvadorian recipes, with a little tweaking so that the demographic here can enjoy it. Let’s say, they’re Salvadorian recipes with my Cabalito touch.
So let’s talk a little more about your restaurant, it’s a beautiful design.
Yes, I’m very proud of the image, my roommate is a graphic designer, and he designed it, and working with him was definitely one of the best decisions I made, because from that point on, people have complimented me on it. I think if you’re going to do it you, have to do it right. [Our logo] is everything I wanted, because I didn’t want any color in it, I wanted to be able to staple it, cookie cutter it, etc. and I wanted it to represent El Salvador, which it does. If you look up Salvadorian art work, the bird appears often.
Tell me, what’s the best time to eat a pupusa?
When you’ve had a long day, you’re starving and you wanna do it up right, you get pupusas. You get them and it’s so much more fulfilling than any other food.
Cabalito opens Friday, March 13th, 2015 from 11am to 11pm and is located at 13 Essex street, New York, NY.