Cabalito 

Over the course of living here a little less than five years, I’ve eaten pupusas four times. When I lived in Edmonton, it felt like I ate pupusas at least once a month. I’ve previously written about my love for them, and even about my successful attempts at making them. It would be easy to explain why eating them fell by the wayside when I moved here: There are so many other cuisines to try, getting them is less convenient, I rarely cook for myself. It is also a food that I associate eating with other pupusa lovers. A shared craving and excitement for the street snack colours my pupusa memories. As I eat alone so often now and have a smaller circle of friends, let alone pupusa-fiend friends, it is not surprising that I would go out for Salvadorian with less frequency. The real reason I don’t seek pupusas out, however, is because I see them as an Edmonton food.

For the first 22 years of my life, I had my heart on leaving Edmonton. It was my hometown, but it never gave me the warm fuzzies of being home.  There was nothing unique to my longing to leave, not among many other young people in Deadmonton then and now, not among young people anywhere who think their pond is too small and small-minded. Edmonton was/is a city with the attitude of a small town, a suburb with a downtown, a sprawl of malls (including the world’s largest) across frozen tundra. It is a hockey town with a heart of gold, but dare I say, it is also… provincial. Any way you sliced it, I wanted out. Its offerings did not match my desires. I worked my ass off in school to try and get a one-way ticket somewhere, and thankfully, it worked.

[Insert grad school here, long story short:]

Until I moved back. My life at that moment was on a trajectory I never imagined happening to me. Marriage and babies and real estate were now all possibilities, and they are all things well-suited to Edmonton. If you forget about the winters, Edmonton makes all other places seem irrelevant for those things; Edmonton wages war against all others who also lay claim to being “a nice place to raise a family.”

Trajectories changed, and when those things weren’t possibilities, Deadmonton shone through.

By my late twenties, water had become thicker than blood, and although I had an ocean of friendship around me, I knew it would not be enough to stay. When an opportunity to leave again came up, I grabbed it. I landed in Vancouver for a blip and am now here in New York. Perhaps the only place I’ve felt comfortable being myself, being by myself. I haven’t been back to Edmonton in three years, and it’s hard for me to think about a visit. I know there is insecurity about looking at it as a place to live again. Because I fear my New York bubble will pop one day. I fear I’ll have to return out of an inability to figure my life out. I fear finding out that the ocean is no longer there.

So, [outside of the fact that many people I love live there…] absence has not made the heart grow fonder. Edmonton has made me who I am, but that’s a matter of fact not pride. Sometimes I hope that I’m who I am despite Edmonton. But there will always be an invisible tattoo of its influence that runs across my skin. The not so invisible is my accent.

That doesn’t mean that good memories cannot easily be conjured. What’s the consequence of nostalgia? A pupusa craving. I usually can shrug it off and avoid memory lane, but I have had good ones here: El Olomega at the Red Hook ball fields, La Cabana Salvadorena up in Hudson Heights, and now Cabalito on the Lower East Side.

I remember when Cabalito opened—it would offer me the easiest access to pupusas—but I let the news be forgotten because, Edmonton. Perhaps it is the impending arrival of one of those Edmontonians I love that had me make my way down to Essex Street last week. The smell of the masa on the griddle, the fat on my fingers, the crunch of the curtido. Within a few bites, a fiend was released. Cabalito’s pupusas strike a happy medium between overly greasy, cheesy (flaccid) pupusas and less filled, easier-to-eat ones*. The amount of curtido they included for three pupusas was the amount I would use for one, so I ponied up the $2 for more. Note that this is the first time and place I’ve been charged for more of the cabbage slaw. I get it. Rent, labour, ingredients—this isn’t Edmonton, the curtido can’t flow like water.  I prefer versions with more oregano and jalapeno, but it had the necessary texture. Cabalito’s salsa roja was also chunkier than I’m used to, with more of a pico de gallo flavour than the usual very simple tomato sauce. The loroco pupusa was the best of that type I’ve ever had. The less-common chorizo and cheese lacked an expected spicy kick and thus was boring. Although the revueltas was light on beans, it was heavy on well-seasoned pork. The construction of and amount of cheese in all three was perfect, and once I loaded on the salsa and curtido, nothing else mattered. Maybe Edmonton did. Just a touch.

*Don’t let me catch you eating a pupusa with a knife and fork. Restaurant proprietors usually provide them, but this is street food. Would you eat a hot dog with a knife and fork? Or a taco? There’s no need to pull a Mr. Pitt. I was taught to split a pupusa into two circles, load each side up with slaw and salsa, and then eat it like two tacos. You can also just pull the pupusa apart with your fingers, topping or dipping each morsel more haphazardly. The knife can be helpful in splitting a very hot pupusa, the fork to load on the curtido. Clean hands after that, please.

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