Where do you find the best pupusas on Long Island? Carlos Soto had his answer. On a recent Saturday morning at the Long Beach Farmers' Market, the former military general was selling single-origin coffee beans from his own family farm, Finca La Fortuna in El Salvador. Each bag was $23, but the food tips were free.
Soto got on his phone and made a call, and then said we needed to try his friend’s place, La Tapachulteca in Hempstead. "Tell them General Soto sent you," he said. A short trip up Long Beach Road, a mid-sized food market and deli was bustling with lunchgoers eating bowls of soup on red trays.
It opened five months ago in an area already flush with Latino delis and bakeries. But owner Thomas Torres said the restaurant actually dates back decades.
La Tapachulteca is one of the largest supermarket brands in El Salvador and has dozens of stores throughout the country, Torres explained, standing in front of a pastry counter stacked with hot chocolate bricks and sweet Salvadoran quesadilla cakes. His grandparents, Sergio Torres Rivera and Irma Polanco Torres, opened their first location in 1962. The family sold their supermarket chain in 2000, but kept both of the U.S. branches they had opened in the Los Angeles area. Then Torres’ father Marcos Sergio Torres relocated to New York so that his sons would have a business of their own someday.
“He was thinking, when he’s gone, this is going to be ours,” he said.
The front of the store is a deli-style restaurant and bakery where Torres sells an incredible version of the iconic Salvadorean pound cake, the quesadilla. (Not to be confused with the savory Mexican quesadilla. The only common denominator here is cheese.) Using a recipe that took him three years to perfect, the faintly sweet cake has two different types of cheese as well as milk and Salvadorean cream. The sesame-studded loaf is baked to a deep brown but the inside is soft and crumbly like Southern cornbread.
“Our goal is to make the people feel like home, like they’re back in El Salvador,” he said.
The back area has a market with fresh produce as well as specialty products like dulce atado, a Salvadorean sweetening agent like panela made from sugar cane juice that’s boiled down into a paste and shaped into a mold. There are also bowls made from what looks to be half of a hollowed-out coconut. It's actually a large Salvadorean fruit called morro. You can pour sweet drinks like corn atole inside and use them as cups.
As for the pupusas … they're soft like pancakes and almost as wide as a plate. They almost explode with the hot mixture of refried red beans and melted cheese that seep out the sides. There isn't as much crunch to them, but the cheese pull is fantastic.
Are they from a certain region in El Salvador? No, Thomas said. They’re actually Americanized, because he uses Monterrey Jack cheese.
“It’s not just Latinos" who love it too, he said, adding that he owns a shirt with a message we can all get behind, “Make pupusas, not war.”
La Tapachulteca, 255 Fulton Ave., Hempstead, 516-385-3685, latapany.com. Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.