Not So Starving Artists: Restaurante El Salvador by Katie Boyts
Photos by Chris Attenborough

It was an accident that we ate at Restaurante El Salvador. I wanted to find the Mexican taco truck that normally sits on Broadway & Eastern Ave, the one that is so authentic it actually accepts pesos. It was a Saturday morning and we wanted breakfast tacos, but at 10:30 am, I knew the search was risky. Alas, the truck was nowhere to be found.

There were several restaurants on Broadway touting their Latin American heritage, promising tacos, so it wasn’t exactly a crisis. Most of the spots are El Salvadoran, one of Baltimore’s largest migrant communities, and there, on the corner of Broadway and Pratt, was our solution. A neon sign saying “Desayuno.” Breakfast. It was Restaurante El Salvador.

IMG_7223

I used to live in Butcher’s Hill, just several blocks from this row of El Salvadoran restaurants. One of my favorite weekend activities was to walk down Broadway and choose a taqueria to duck into for a simple meal of a pupusa or a tamale. There, among the taquerias and shops advertising calling cards in Spanish, it feels like a different world – one where I don’t comfortably speak the language and the sounds and smells are refreshingly different from my own home. On at least one of these occasions I’d been to Restaurante El Salvador but never for this purpose – a breakfast taco review. We were like long lost friends becoming reacquainted.

Chris and I sat down with the huge, colorful menu, which includes photos of every dish, and we almost immediately noticed the absence of tacos de desayuno. The friendly server said no, in fact, breakfast tacos did not exist there. So we discussed the option of simply leaving and trying another spot. Surely, someone in this neighborhood would put eggs in small tortillas.

But then, I saw the breakfast burrito, identified my near urgent need for coffee, and figured, “Well they’re putting eggs in large tortillas. That’s close enough, right?” Right. With a substantial degree of dedication, we ordered the Huevos Rancheros and the Desayuno Burrito.

I also asked for chips and salsa, of course. “They’re not ready,” she said. Which is objectively reasonable given that it was 10:30 am, and I imagine chips and salsa are not exactly a standard breakfast request. So with a hidden err of disappointment, I conceded and ordered a side of guacamole, which to my utter delight came with chips. I then took the backdoor approach to my favorite pairing: “May I have a side salsa please?” Yes. Voila! Chips and salsa with a side of guacamole.

IMG_7197

IMG_7203

My adoration of chips and salsa at breakfast, paired with a hot coffee, was born out of a family vacation many, many years ago to Port Isabel, Texas, a town just inland from South Padre Island. When I was young, my family used to visit South Padre in the summers and there, discovered a Mexican restaurant called Manuel’s. What we found drew us back year after year, and Manuel’s is now one of those spots of legend that we all dramatically reminisce about over family dinners. The breakfast burritos would come on a freshly-made hot flour tortilla the size of a hub cap, and morning hour didn’t stop a bowl of warm, crisp tortilla chips and a side of salsa from being delivered to the table. Manuel’s was a revelatory, paradigm-shifting restaurant.

Despite the morning(ish) request, Restaurante El Salvador also came out strong with the chips and salsa. The salsa was brilliantly bright in flavor, bordering pico de gallo in texture. The chips were as crisp as one could get them, and the guacamole was rich and fresh, although I wouldn’t have turned down an extra squeeze of lime.

Their take on Huevos Rancheros was different from any I’ve had before. Atop a tostada (fried corn tortilla) sat a fried egg and a generous pouring of a tasty, non-spicy pepper sauce that was reminiscent of chutney. The tortilla was nice and crispy, and its flavor of masa married the sauce beautifully. I did find the egg slightly overcooked however. Alongside the eggs sat gorgeous green slices of avocado and a rice and beans combo.

IMG_7200

IMG_7211

Wrapped inside the breakfast burrito were eggs, cheese, rice and beans, and bell peppers and onions. Accompanied by a side of roasted potatoes, both the sweet and savory, this was a breakfast burrito well-executed. It satisfied the Saturday egg and cheese craving and hit the sharp notes in the right spots with the peppers and onions, and with a bit of that salsa and guacamole, it all came together piece by piece.

In their worst moments, burritos can sit like cylindrical bricks in your belly, preventing all physical activity for the remainder of the day. In those low points (usually due to slathering in an excess of chile con queso and sour cream) they quickly become the excuse for slothness. I often avoid burritos for this reason. Call me kooky but I like to be able to move after a meal. Thankfully, Restaurante El Salvador had no such punishment. This burrito was basic and delicious, topped with a thin layer of sour cream that was a proper accessory, not a drowning.

IMG_7213

Even still, I have a bit of ordering regret. Afterwards I wondered to myself, “Self, why would you go to an El Salvadoran restaurant and order a breakfast burrito? Why not aim for the huevos con chorizo or the huevos revueltos, which comes with fried plantains? You love fried plantains.” In any case, it was a solid breakfast served by a friendly, confident server. We were in good hands.

Our total for the meal was $23, which seems crazy to me. I have paid that much for a single salad sprinkled with a meager cucumber and a bottle of water at pretentious places I shall leave unnamed. For $23 we got two healthy-sized entrees, a large portion of fresh guacamole and chips, salsa, and two bottomless coffees.

IMG_7220

There is a certain ambiance in this genre of Latin restaurants that I adore. They often house big booths and bright colors. The food comes at a quick pace but there’s never any rush to leave, and the whole place seems to invite you to just sit still awhile. Maybe it’s all in the timing, but I can feel myself exhale a bit at places like Restaurante El Salvador. The sounds of vinyl squeaking against your thighs or the smell of jalapenos tells you it’s all going to be ok. And it really is.

Author Katie Boyts is a pastry chef with a love of affordable carbs and the host of the Baltimore chapter of CreativeMornings

All photos by Chris Attenborough.

IMG_7219