For six years, Candy Hernandez and her daughter, Luvy Carballo, offered traditional dishes from their native El Salvador in a small storefront restaurant called El Viroleño.
It was an unlikely oasis of ethnic home cooking, next to the homeless shelter on Tennessee Street, but a haven for foodies, college students and downtown workers who could enjoy a delicious meal there for under $10.
In June, Hernandez and Carballo moved out and up to the burbs, relocating to the Northeast at Northampton Shopping Center on Kerry Forest Parkway.
Hernandez, from the city of Zacatecoluca in southern El Salvador, is still cooking in the kitchen (though a much bigger one) and Carballo still works the front with warmth and charm. The music is festive, the artwork colorful and folksy, the aromas heavenly. You’ll feel like you’ve left Tallahassee behind.
The new El Viroleño is open, bright and roomy enough for at least 60 diners, and there’s plenty of parking space. The restaurant’s decor pays tribute to the cobalt blue and white hues of the Salvadoran flag.
It’s an upgrade, with metal wainscoting and blue tablecloths, but this is still a casual place where kids are welcome — those tablecloths are covered with plastic. One Saturday evening, families conversing in Spanish were gathered around the TV, watching soccer, always a good sign. Homey.
Service isn’t always brisk, at least during peak dinner hours. El Viroleño has been a two-person operation till now, but the mom-and-daughter team has been adding some help. So relax; this a family-like dining experience you’ll want to enjoy at length.
The outdoor sign for El Viroleño notes it’s both a tacqueria and a pupuseria. You can probably guess the taco part. Pupusas are the classic Salvadoran street snack.
Hernandez makes at least 50 of these round, hearty corn cakes by hand each day, filling them with all kinds of goodies like refried beans, loroco (a vine flower bud native to Central America), cheese and squash and revueltas (a combination of beans, cheese and pork).
In all, Hernandez offers 11 choices. Pick three for $6, or pay $7 for a trio of the “especials,” which are cheese with chicken, spinach or shrimp. The latter was my favorite, the shellfish cooked not a second too long, nestled in the warm, slightly charred corn cake.
My husband also raves about the shredded pork filling, but you can’t go wrong with any of these perfect, portable pupusas. Pile on curtido, a vinegary cabbage slaw, and a semi-spicy tomato salsa and it’s a complete meal.
We could gorge on pupusas alone, but there’s much more to discover on the extensive menu. Among the familiar appetizers you’ll find nachos with guacamole, Mexican tostadas and empanadas. My husband and I shared a tamale, shredded chicken in a warm corn dough, wrapped in banana leaves. Central American comfort food.
El Viroleño also has soups, salads and sandwiches, and both Salvadoran and Mexican combos — quesadillas, tacos, burritos, fajitas, and chiles relleno, all accompanied by rice, refried beans (dark and smoky) and a salad. On weekends, go exotic with menudo, a soup with tripe, and sopa de gallina, or hen soup.
One of our favorites is a generous plate of grilled steak and slices of chicken breast garnished with shrimp and slices of red and green bell peppers, plus those sides. The meats are juicy from the grill, the shrimp succulent. The salad was a highlight, with fresh chopped greens, tomatoes, onions and avocado.
For a lighter meal, we chose the ceviche, presented in a glass dish showcasing a bright array of chopped tilapia and shrimp “cooked” in citrus juices and tossed with tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables, topped with slices of avocado. Refreshing.
On one visit, we were disappointed with an overdone grilled steak, a rare misstep easily forgiven when we learned Hernandez was training a new cook. We tried the lean steak again on a return visit and, ahhh… well seasoned, tender and satisfying.
For dessert, your choice is easy. The ultra creamy flan, soft and
caramel-y, is a sweet sendoff.
No beer or wine yet, but while a license is in the works sample a scrumptious fruit shake made with mango, papaya, strawberry or banana – or a combination of tropical flavors. Or imbibe a light, cinnamon-y horchata, made from rice and milk.
Appetizers run from $2 to $11; three pupusas are $6 or $7; soups, salads and sandwiches $6.50-$11; entrees $7.50-$15; kids’ menu $2.50 to $4.50; dessert $2.50.
The pupusas alone are reason enough to try El Viroleño, but Hernandez and Carballo are serving up the dining culture of their homeland. Enjoy the journey.
Worth the Drive
If you go
Northhampton Shopping Center
2910 Kerry Forest Parkway, Suite B-1
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily