IN DARKEST GREENWOOD lies a splash of the tropics: Buen Gusto Salvadoran and Mexican cuisine, the three-month-old enterprise of husband-and-wife Salvadoran expats Enrique Iraheta and Marisol Sanchez. Earthy burlap curtains and walls painted in equatorial-sea and island-fruit colors transport the casual space out of its North End strip mall and into a dusty Central American village, where the deep-fried smell of corn tortillas bubbling in hot oil might perfume a whole town. Here it wafts past the dozen or so tables and out onto the 85th Street sidewalk, announcing authentic Salvadoran cuisine as boldly as the festive sign out front. Buen Gusto
301 NW 85th, 784-4699
Sun-Thu 11:30-9, Fri-Sat 11:30-10:30
MC, V, checks OK; no alcohol (beer and wine pending) A reader—perhaps one of the many folks we saw here in three visits—had tipped us off to this place in the old Barbacoa location, insisting that the food was superb. Scanning the menu, it did look superb: a smattering of pupusas (Salvadoran stuffed tortillas) and tamales; a handful each of hearty chicken, beef, pork, seafood, and vegetarian main dishes; the requisite burritos and tacos. We slipped in for our first visit early on a Tuesday evening and began with a couple of pupusas. In the zucchini and cheese variant ($1.75), melted feta and mozzarella and slivers of the shredded squash oozed from inside the pancake-like corn tortilla and made a fetching little starter. The chicken version ($1.75), alas, wasn't nearly as tasty. Instead, the filling was pasty, and didn't, wonder of wonders, taste like chicken. A Caesar salad ($3.75) tasted just the way a Caesar salad ought to taste, however, with a creamy dressing and a lovely anchovy bite. Chuletas de puerco con salsa de recado ($8.95) was two grilled pork chops in a mild romesco-like red sauce, served beside red beans and rice. The beans and rice were great. The pork, slathered with sauce and bits of onions and peppers, was tough. My meal was impressive enough to look at: a whole tilapia fish, pretty little head and all, fried crispy and topped with grilled vegetables ($10.95). It was not, unfortunately, as impressive to eat. Part of the problem just goes with the territory of such a dish: too many skin pieces and bones and eyeballs to avoid. But part of the problem was excessive greasiness—this fish had been fried long and hard. We finished with two desserts: a goopy bread pudding ($2.95) and a yummy little confection called tres leches ($3.50). Condensed, evaporated, and whole milks combined to form a caramelly flan, which came topped with whipped cream. WHEN WE RETURNED for our second visit, we began with an appetizer I'd have preferred as a dessert. A steamed tamal de elote ($2) was a winsomely sweet tamale, beautifully textured, redolent of sweet corn, with a terrific warm cream sauce poured over it. It was sensational. We also mostly liked the fried calamari starter ($5.95), in which the heavily breaded (and too heavily fried) squids were drizzled with lemony mayonnaise and served in a basket of shredded tortilla strips with a robust red dipping sauce. This is the same salsa that accompanies the house tortilla chips, and its flavors are deep and nut-rich with pumpkin seeds and chipotle chiles. The chips, for their part, feature less salt and less grease than the average—two elements the more politically incorrect parts of your palate might rather miss. We also revisited the pupusas, and found ourselves disappointed again. Buen Gusto's corn tortillas are dense, chewy, and saltless—delicious in a bland sort of way—and need ripely flavored fillings to wake them up. The meat inside the pork pupusa ($1.95) hadn't the stuff to do that, being just as underseasoned and pasty as its chicken cousin. Topping it with a little mound of shredded pickled cabbage and salsa brought this pupusa within walking distance of interesting, but it was still a long walk. That same cabbage was the main element of the yucca con chicharron ($7.50), a one-dish meal that also featured fried yucca root, tomato and cuke wedges, and cubes of crispy baked pork. Yucca root being a lot like potato, think of a big bowl of coleslaw with big fat french fries in it. Pretty dry. Then there was the pork: just way overcooked. If you're beginning to spy a pattern, so—by this time—were we. My pollo con maiz ($8.95) was a chicken stew in a mild red chile tomato sauce, and the chicken was dessicated. As an experiment I came back for lunch the next day and ordered a trio of meat tacos off the Mexican part of the menu—one beef, one chicken, one pork ($5.95)—and found that this kitchen is capable of producing moist meat. The pork taco, with those by-now-familiar cubes of jerky-like puerco alongside minced onions and cilantro tucked inside a folded corn tortilla, was irredeemable. But the chicken was not far from tender, and featured a little sauce. And the beef was downright delicious. Several marinated flank steak dishes on the menu are perhaps the thing to order at Buen Gusto. We finished up with an interesting dessert: ripe plantains stuffed with milk pudding and deep-fried, presented on a bed of caramel sauce ($4.50). The plantains, surprisingly, took a back seat in this dish to the strangeness of the milk pudding, a white, Crisco-textured stuff that wasn't bad with the sugar caramel. While we were licking our spoons, Enrique took time out from his harried job as sole waiter to sing a Salvadoran Happy Birthday song to a gentleman at the next table. And therein lies both the good and the bad of the family-owned neighborhood restaurant: The service may be slow, but then the owner croons you a ballad. And maybe the food will be yucky, or maybe it will be yucca: At Buen Gusto, as at so many mom-and-pops, food quality appears to be a crapshoot. My recommendation at this point is to come for the tamales, or the beef, or a burrito off the Mexican list; my chicken burrito ($5.95) with beans and rice and sour cream and guac and pico de gallo was a perfectly serviceable version of the wraps now found on every street corner in town. And maybe you'll be surprised—hopefully in the positive direction. As we were leaving this modest little joint I noticed two palm trees flanking the front doors: one green and thriving, the other drooping extravagantly, long past dead. A living metaphor: You takes your chances.