Welcome to Counter Intel. When she's not eating her way around the city (or the world), Chelsea Lin writes about food and entertainment for a variety of local and national websites. Each week here on Voracious, she'll be sharing her love of slightly obscure, questionably clean, undoubtedly affordable ethnic eateries--not the high-end Americanized joints, but the tiny food counters found at Asian/Latin American/African grocery stores around the greater Seattle area. Check back to find out where you can buy fresh injera, hominy for homemade posole, or ready-to-eat packs of Vietnamese sweets.
The pollo en crema de loroco at Salvadorean Bakery.
For the first round of Counter Intel, this former California girl wanted to satisfy a burrito craving rarely satiated in Seattle. The aim was to hit up a Mexican grocery/taqueria in White Center called Del Rio that I've heard good things about but never visited. What I found in the former Del Rio space was a creepily deserted restaurant called Chemo's--because nothing says delicious Mexican food like cancer treatments. When faced with such a disastrous situation, and a grumbling stomach that has no patience, there's only one option: Go for the tried-and-true.
I end up just a couple of blocks away at the Salvadorean Bakery. Though probably one of the most well-known bodegas in White Center, it's a spot worthy of the accolades: open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, offering giant plates of traditional Salvadorean dishes, an absurd selection of cakes and pastries, and enough groceries to make you want to channel your inner abuela and cook some posole at home.Walking through the main door brings you face-to-face with a 10-foot glass case filled with a rainbow of Salvadorean sweets. Whole cakes are available for less than $30--Americanized favorites like cream cheese-topped carrot cake, chocolate birthday cakes, and the quintessential Latin American tres leches--and slices for just a few bucks. There are layered napoleons, creamy flans, empanadas filled with guava or pineapple, and an appropriately named rum-soaked cake called a borracho. Beyond the cakes and cookies and buns and doughnuts, though, are a few shelves full of ingredients to experiment with at home--yucca chips to snack on, bags of hominy, jars of Peruvian sauces and Guatemalan marinades--plus a refrigerated case littered with housemade pork sausages, bags of lard, and containers of crema. Combined with the background noise of someone in the kitchen pounding masa for tortillas, it's enough to inspire anyone to get into their own kitchen.
But that's not why I'm here. I'm here because I'm hungry, and mildly disappointed that my taqueria didn't work out. Above the dessert cases is a whiteboard inscribed with a Spanish-only menu of assorted pupusas (a traditional Salvadorean dish made up of thick, handmade corn tortillas filled with a choice of chicharron, cheese, and beans, or loroco, an edible blossom commonly used in Guatemalan and Salvadorean cuisine), tamales, soups, and entrees. I know enough Spanish to pick out a plate of chile rellenos, rice, and beans, while my dining partner chooses a creamy stewed-chicken dish called pollo en crema de loroco. Afterward, of course, I notice a menu on the counter with English descriptions of the dishes, and a dizzying array of breakfast items that sounds so good I wish I'd seen them first.
We wait for perhaps 20 minutes in the adjoined, cafeteria-style dining room after ordering--surrounded by multi-ethnic families enjoying communal meals over lively chatter and some festive guitar music coming over the restaurant's speakers. We end up with huge plates of refried beans, rice flavored with chicken and flecks of red peppers, a pale salad strangely topped with Italian dressing, and our ordered entrees. A steaming pile of thick tortillas--much thicker than the common Mexican version--is set between us, alongside a bottle of hot sauce. The chile relleno has obviously been made fresh, since it's got none of that lingering old-oil taste found at taquerias where speed is essential. A soft coating, delicately spicy chile, and a generous helping of melted cheese are all smothered in a tomato-based sauce that needs some extra hot sauce for a kick. The pollo is soft and has clearly been cooking for hours, the sauce dotted with sliced mushrooms and finished with a near-heart-clogging amount of cream that my partner thoroughly enjoyed.
And because even when you're so full you actually have to waddle away from your table, it's still impossible to ignore the lure of the dessert case, we pick up a piece of the signature tres leches cake for dessert. Delicately sweet, soaked in milk, and accented with whipped cream and just a few slices of strawberry, it makes for an amazing day-after breakfast as well.