When I walked into El Salvador Restaurant, the first thing I saw was a sign that said “Please Seat Yourself” and a counter past the booths for take-out orders. This set the tone that El Salvador Restaurant was a place where the food, not the frills, was a priority. The restaurant quickly splits into two sections. The first had booths, dark lighting, a small television in one of the upper corners and the take-out counter. I chose to sit in the more formal section which was past some arches with faux red bricks painted around them. The dining room had chairs along with tables topped with white imitation flowers with pink tips in vases.
Immediately a waiter brought out some chips and salsa. I could not tell if the chips were freshly made or came from a bag. They were lightly salted and slightly bitter in taste. The salsa was orange, indicating habanero. The spicy salsa was flavorful, with a strong hot aftertaste. I have never met a salsa that was too hot for my taste, so I enjoyed the heat.
The two-tone room, white on the top and bright red on the bottom, was bright, clean and spacious. I visited on a Sunday afternoon and I was the only person in the dining area, exaggerating my perception of the size of the room. Pictures of El Salvador hung on the walls, looking like they came from a travel bureau. Many of them featured bright flowers, green foliage and blue skies. One said “El Salvador Colorido y Belleza” – color and beauty. More imitation flowers hung upon the walls of the dining room.
I ordered the horchata ($1.75) while I read the menu. I received an old red plastic glass, chipped on the edges, but the horchata was lightly sweetened and spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla flavors, making a refreshing afternoon drink. The waiter quickly refilled my glass when it was empty.
After looking over the colorful menu, I asked the waiter what made enchiladas Salvadoreñas ($6.99) different from the Mexican variety. He described the Salvadorian version as featuring pupusas, a small thick Salvadorian tortilla. He also said it did not feature a sauce like the well-known Mexican version. Pupusas are a common part of Salvadorian cuisine. I decided to go with the enchiladas.
My meal arrived quickly on a large plate, which, like the red cup, had chips along the edge. The food looked pleasant with two pupusas, about three inches in diameter each, topped with steak and a salad of lettuce, green bell pepper and carrot. The very top featured a garnish of a half-slice of tomato. Refried beans and rice completed the meal.
The beans had a distinct lard taste, but were pleasant once I adjusted to the taste. The rice featured peppers and onions and seemed to smooth out the strong lard taste. Unlike Mexican or Spanish rice dishes, the Salvadorian version did not feature any tomatoes. I found the lack of tomatoes to enhance some of the subtle flavors of the pepper and onion in the dish.
Since the pupusas were a bit crispy, I decided the best way to tackle the enchiladas, which looked more like tostadas than what most Americans would think of as enchiladas, was to eat them using my hands. The salad on top was marinated in light oil, which blended nicely with the moderate crunch of the pupusa. The steak in the middle was cut into very small pieces and was tender and well-seasoned. The food was not spicy. Compared to its Mexican counterpart, it was a bit bland. However, the pupusa was too salty for my taste. Was it so salty that it ruined the meal? Not really. However, it was salty enough that I would not order this item again.
After finishing my meal, I remembered something on the menu that caught my attention. It listed mango among the flavors of milkshake available. I ordered the mango milkshake ($3.25), curious how such a treat would taste. The tall glass I received had a lot of mango, but nothing that qualified as a milkshake. There was no milk or ice cream. It was just mango juice blended with ice. It was less than a smoothie and, my failed expectations aside, I did not enjoy it.
After I got my bill, I went to the counter to pay and waited for longer than I would have like to. While waiting I looked at the display counter, which featured a variety of Salvadorian souvenirs and candy for sale. It occurred to me that a visitor to this restaurant can have a Salvadorian meal and return home with a souvenir. A visitor could be a tourist and never have to deal with all the trouble of actual travel.
I left the El Salvador Restaurant with mixed feelings. My meal was not bad, but I had problems with it. The pupusas were too salty and my mango milkshake was not a milkshake by my standards. Much of the dinnerware was chipped and old. However, the staff was friendly, helpful and it had the space and atmosphere that favors families with children.
El Salvador Restaurant
517 Forest Street
Reno, NV 89509
Tuesday 10-2 & 6-9
Wednesday – Sunday 10-10
The restaurant has a parking lot with plenty of spots and additional parking is available on Forest Street. Forest Street is a one-way southbound street. I recommend entering Forest Street from California Avenue.