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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Red Hook'd: Lainez Salvadoran

A vegetarian buddy of mine (yup!) introduced me to the pupusa about 5 years back. We drove two hours in the pouring rain to a spot in Queens where the streets and the avenues have the same numbers, and then kept going... to a little hole in the wall. From the outside, it looked like one of those bars you see in 80's horror flics, where patronage is split evenly between cannibal maniacs and nubile young campers. Was I that wayward, unwitting teen? Was my pal a psycho killer hungering for human flesh? Vegetarians typically don't eat people, so I decided to chance it and enter.
Don't get it twisted: Papoose (Brooklyn emcee), a papoose (kiddie backpack), and pupusas (good eats)

The nondescript restaurant was actually a Salvadoran hotspot. Inside, a packed house of folks relaxing after work enjoying the bustle: a constant rotation of fresh pupusa production, cabbage shredding, and Corona drinking. I dove right in and ordered a few, still not entirely clear what I was about to eat.

As I soon learned, a pupusa is a Salvadoran staple, a griddled-cooked cake of masa (soft moistened cornmeal) stuffed with cheese and either beans or shredded pork (or both). This was awhile back, but I still remember this simple and satisfying meal, how great pupusas went with the traditional sides of crisp shredded spicy cabbage and frosty beers. But it was unrealistic to expect I might relive this experience anytime soon; it was just too long and confusing a trek.

To this day I haven't been back to that pupuseria, but I harbor fond memories for their specialty, and have since tried to relive the experience at various nearer-by non-Salvadoran establishments. Always with so-so results: they never really hit the same spot.

Enter the Red Hook Soccer Fields, once again to the rescue.
Master P: Roberto Lainez flipping pupusas

If you ever have a hankering, or want to partake in an authentic pupusa experience, pay Roberto Lainez and family a visit. Their tent (the only Salvadoran on the premises, as they proudly note) serves some mighty fine eats and conversation alike. I recently spent an afternoon shooting the breeze with Roberto's daughter Janet on food, family, Salvadorans, and the Red Hook Scene.
a winning smile: Janet Lainez on pupusa duty

Janet comes from a pretty talented family. She was a psych major at CCNY, and her brother is a photographer from Pratt. But they made their most well-known mark with food. She and her folks came to America back in 1977, when there weren't many Salvadorans in Brooklyn. (For that matter, there still aren't; the community is concentrated on Long Island.) So when they set up tent at the Red Hook Fields some 15 years ago, they were the only act in town. Her mom, aunt and cousin actually started the pupusa stand. After her mom took ill and the other relatives returned to El Salvador, Janet and Roberto grabbed the reigns.
Roberto's daughter-in-law Vilma surveys the goods

Back then, the Red Hook food tents had quite a different vibe. For one, there was drinking. A lot of drinking. And you get the sense that, after folks had tipped back one too many, Janet received her fair share of hassles. These were also more competitive times, marked by the occasional tent controversy amongst vendors themselves. It was still far more satisfying than owning a restuarant (which Roberto also did), so the family kept at it, hassles be damned.
pupusa with pickled cabbage

One of the Red Hook O.G.s, this is an experienced tent. The star of the Lainez show is, of course, the pupusa. As Janet confides, some folks buy up to 10 or 15 at a time, to eat throughout the week. They serve traditional Salvadoran combinations (she wasn't too keen on making an all-bean pie for a vegan customer), but she recommends the revuelta with pork, cheese and beans... and I have to agree. This was one seriously tasty pupusa. Paired with some of their homemade hot sauce and terrific pickled cabbage, it hit that elusive spot.

One reason may be simple: in addition to their traditional approach, their pupusas are utterly homemade: soft sweet masa; wonderfully flavorful beans (slow-simmered for hours, ground, seasoned and simmered again); pork (mashed fried chunks simmered with a secret spice combo); and whole-milk mozzarella cheese (chosen for its low-salt content and meltability).

Come to think of it, the Lainez fam makes everything on their menu from scratch: grilled steak and fried carnitas, rice, beans, plantains, tamales, corn and Salvadoran tortillas (unstuffed masa cakes). It's a long week that begins on Mondays: ordering and seasoning the meat, frying and grinding, grating cabbage, shopping for yucca, corn and plantains, doing final prep work, packing up the goods, and heading out to Red Hook for the weekend rush.
secrets of Salvadoran horchata revealed: Janet holding a morro nut

Before calling it a day, Janet insisted I try another house specialty: a pair of Salvadoran beverages. First up was a really unusual horchata. Unlike the Mexican variation, El Salvador eschews rice and cinnamon for a refreshing elixir of black sesame seeds, corn, and something called morro (the large gourd-shaped seed in the picture above). I also enjoyed the marañon, juice made of raw cashew fruit. This Salvadoran specialty vaguely reminded me of guanabana: pale yellow, sweet and tart, slightly creamy, and a great way to cap of a fine afternoon.

The family's hard work has clearly paid off. Janet noted that both Time Out and Channel 41 have interviewed her this year; they heard she served the best pupusas in Brooklyn. During one visit, I also met a saucier from Jean-Georges' flagship Manhattan restaurant, who took a particular shine to their masa. But she doesn't seem to sweat the attention, so long as people sample some of her country's finest. Game recognize game!




Lainez Salvadoran
Bay Street side
(sixth tent from the corner)

Giant plates of goodness: $9.00
Pupusas: $1.50
Horchata or Marañon: $2.00

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5 Comments:

Blogger Sparks said...

Awesome series of posts on Red Hook! I was in the process of documenting the red hook ballfields but must say that you have done a fantastic and such a thorough job that it would be a waste of time for me to do so... keep up the great work

5:21 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

thanks sparks, glad you're enjoying....

2:24 PM  
Blogger rmunguia said...

My parents were from El Salvador and I was "made in the USA" and my comfort food is the pupusa. All my friends love this tasty treat!!

3:46 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

no doubt. pupusas are great, especially with that spicy cabbage and a nice cold beer.

fyi, Cesar Fuentes (chief of the food vendors committee) is Salvadoran too...

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

freaky!!!! my name is janet lainez, im also salvadorean and im a current psych major!!!FREAKKKKYYYY

2:24 AM  

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