I’ve driven by Chelito’s Pupuseria plenty of times when I make my way into Santa Cruz but always thought to myself, “Eh, it’s probably just another Mexican restaurant.”
Boy was I wrong.
The moment my friend Kyle and I walked into Chelito’s, just past Jack in the Box on Ocean Street, the aromas of “something scrumptious” instantly reminded me of my grandma’s kitchen.
This unusual entry into a market crowded with Mexican places offers a flavor from south of the border, but don’t be quick to call it another taqueria.
Victor Escobar from San Salvador, El Salvador and Saul Hernandez from Mexico City D.F. are the owners of Chelito’s and offer a menu of what can be considered soul food from their home countries.
Hernandez assisted Escobar accomplish his lifelong dream when they opened their new establishment last year in October, across from Jack in the Box and in a building that used to serve Buffalo chicken wings.
“It was Victor’s dream to open up a restaurant,” said Hernandez. “But he didn’t have enough money to open one up. He’s like a brother to me, so I decided to help him out.”
The menu was simple enough to read and recognize familiar items like frijoles refritos (refried beans), queso (cheese), and pollo (chicken).
And what I liked is the sit down menu is split up into two sections, an El Salvadorian side and a Mexican side. There are also two giant menus that hang above the kitchen window and each has a picture that cleverly represents their hometowns.
The Salvadorian menu features an array of some of the country’s finest home cooking and specialties such as Sopa de Gallina India ($9.95), a traditional Salvadorian chicken soup that sounds good on a cold day.
The soup has a light broth and comes with crisp vegetables, roasted chicken leg, black beans, cassava (yucca) topped with curtido, chicharrón, and thick handmade corn tortillas.
Curtido is a lightly fermented cabbage slaw with red chilies and vinegar and the chicharron is not the fired pork rind we are accustomed to. Instead, the Salvadorians cook pork meat until it reaches a paste consistency and use it in some of their dishes.
They also have fried Tilapia ($10.95), fried yucca ($5.45), and meat ($4.95) or bean ($1.95) empanadas.
A dish of empanadas comes with three small crispy pieces of meat or bean filled corn masa pies and topped with slices of fresh avocado. An empanada sort of resembles a tiny version of a Hostess fruit pie but without the sweet filling and they are fried, not baked.
On the Mexican side the usual tacos, burritos and sopes were on the menu but I was excited to see that huaraches ($7.50) were also available to order.
A huarache is a long hand rolled corn tortilla that is shaped like a small baguette but still flat and is topped with meat, refried beans, lettuce, salsa, sour cream and queso fresco (Mexican fresh cheese). The choices of meat include asada, pollo, carnitas, chicharron, longanisa (beef sausage) and al pastor.
We started with an appetizer from the Salvadorian menu and ordered a batch fried plantains ($4.95) along with a fruit punch Jarritos ($1.95) for Kyle and a classic Coca Cola ($1.95) in a bottle for me.
It didn’t take long for the crispy yellow strips of sweetened delight to be delivered by Hernandez and in no time Kyle and I dug into the platano fritos with our forks. The plantains came topped with a sweet frosting and a side of sour cream, an unusual but perfect blend of sugared creaminess for my taste buds.
As for lunch Kyle and I each ordered a huarache with carne asada and two of the infamous pupusas, another popular, if not, the most popular traditional food dish from El Salvador.
A pupusa is a thick corn tortilla that gets a small slit right on the edge and can be filled with just about anything from refried beans and cheese to spinach and mushrooms.
And those are just two of Chelito’s eight signature pupusas on the menu. Other ingredients include loroco, a South American vine flower bud, zucchini, chicharron, the pasty pork rind and chicken. They also have a Mexican style pupusa with cheese, cactus, jalapenos that is soaked in enchilada sauce.
Kyle choose two bean and cheese pupusas and but added chicharron to one of his. The two I picked were called pupusa revueltas which in Spanish means scrambled.
The revuelta style came with refried beans, cheese, chicharron, and loroco, a vine flower bud from Central America that Salvadorians use in their dishes, especially in pupusas.
The fairly large pupusas made their way to the table hot and fresh courtesy of Hernandez yet again, but it wouldn’t be a complete Salvadorian dish without some curtido on the side. I grabbed some from the salsa bar along with some pico de gallo and a bottle of red tomato salsa to add little spice.
By the time one pupusa had made its way to my belly, I wasn’t sure if I was able to finish the second with a huarache on the way. And by the time I looked up Kyle had devoured both of his pupusas.
So I changed my game plan for the second half of lunch like Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer would change his plan if he struggled before halftime.
I went for half of the huarache and ate it at good pace but it was too much to handle and I saved the other half along with my leftover pupusa revuelta for dinner later that night.
After a fulfilling and delicious meal, Kyle still had the energy to say some last words before we left the building.
“That solved my munchies problem for sure.” said Kyle.
Chelito's is located at 107 Leonard St. in Santa Cruz, right next to the Jury Room. They are open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The phone number is 831-466-6565.