Flavor: No-frills but authentic Salvadoran
No slight intended against the folks who labored to pave Highway 70, but the ribbon of road that hooks Asheville to Black Mountain has acquired a reputation as a culinary wasteland. A survey of the small businesses that dot the highway confirms its inhabitants have snubbed the gastronomical in favor of the mechanical: Should you be in need of scooters, car parts, or even an entire automobile, Highway 70 will provide.
While there are a few diners and grills here and there, chow seems to be in short supply. Thus the appearance of a lone Salvadoran restaurant in the middle of nowhere in particular, perched humbly on the edge of a graveled and slightly weedy lot bordering the highway, piques the interest of the intrepid diner – at least this one.
“El Nuevo Atlacatl: Restaurante Salvadoreno” read a tall sign that stood guard over a parking lot whose size hinted at more sizable events than just lunch. A squat building, white with turquoise trim and rather suspect all over, Atlacatl’s windowless, flat-paneled double doors revealed little about the goings-on inside. Clearly, this building was not constructed solely as a house of huevos or a papusa palace. Were it not for an open sign repeatedly blinking its singular neon message, the place would seem off-limits to the public, or at least to curious, hungry gringos.
Pulling open those doors, however, revealed nothing in the way of the unusual. A plastic skeleton tacked to the wall for Halloween jumped to life and greeted us in some cheerful but unintelligible electronic gibberish. Staffers, all apparently members of the same family, clustered around a counter. They greeted us graciously, but seemed mildly surprised to see us; perhaps gringo appearances at El Nuevo Atlacatl are a bit of a rarity. The interior of the restaurant looked more like an American Legion building than the dim bar we’d anticipated, with hardwood floors, utilitarian furnishings, and little in the way of decor, save an array of flags. On one end of the room, a crew was busily setting up and testing a hulking sound system that easily dominated the 1,000-square-foot common space. Complete with swiftly rotating party lights on scaffolding that hung dangerously low, the system appeared as if it had the capacity to effectively rock the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium – perhaps more forcefully than its current setup.
Our waitress – the young daughter of the owner, we presumed – explained to us that preparations for a Halloween bash were underway. Considering the atmosphere of the restaurant, it would have been easier to imagine an intense Bingo tournament. As if to prove the partying capacity of his toys, the man at the helm of all those electronics let out a moan through a microphone that distorted his utterances into a robotic pseudo-ghostly caterwaul, then launched into a recording of Shakira. Point taken.
Our waitress offered to halt the proceedings, but it was obvious that the boys were having plenty of fun gearing up for the evening ahead. Clearly, patience was the right move, as we were graciously invited to join in on the festivities later on. Part of me still wishes we’d attended.
To begin our meal, we could hardly resist the Super Antojito Atlacatl ($9.95), described solely as the Salvadorian sampler. Our waitress, having endeared herself to me already by giggling at my husband’s butchering of Spanish pronunciations, explained that the sampler contained – quite simply – “everything.”
“Everything” turned out to be a selection of some of the most artery-hardening treats El Salvador has to offer. Fried yucca bits came complete with chicharron, aka extreme pork rinds: Pork skin is cut in thumb-width chunks, then deep-fried to yield a taste sensation that is best compared to cracklin’-crusted pork chops. “If only you could wrap this in a piece of Serrano ham,” deadpanned my husband, “there’d be no reason to eat anything else.”
Next to the chicharron lay tostones – fried then smashed green plantains – accompanied by thinly sliced and well-seasoned pieces of beef speared with toothpicks. Tortilla chips covered with cubes of crumbly and salty queso fresco, a second type of cheese, and a salsa that tasted like cilantro-spiked pizza garnished the rim of the plate. A dip of refried beans topped with a thick layer of crema fresca rested in a soup cup in the center of this meat-and-cheese lover’s dream. Like buried treasure, a delicious little slaw lay hidden beneath the cover of chips, ready to help scour the belly. We had hoped that the house-made tamales and papusas would make an appearance on our sampler plate, but we had our hands full as it was. Fearing, perhaps, that we didn’t have quite enough to occupy ourselves, our waitress proffered a dish of ceviche containing perhaps the tiniest shrimp I’ve ever seen. It was hands-down delicious, and when we said as much she beamed, telling us, “My mother is making it for the party, and she wanted you to try some.”
We decided to soldier on and order entrees. “So much food!” said the girl, wide-eyed, as she dutifully recorded our orders: the Mariscada Salvadoreno con leche de coco (seafood soup with coconut milk) for me, the “Guanaco Típico,” for him.
The seafood soup ($12.95) turned out to be a wholly luscious, deeply flavored broth in which an entire crab, cleaved down the center, lay submerged and leaching out the flavorful goodness contained within its little crustacean body. Whole shrimp, mussels and sliced calamari swam in the depths of the soup, colored a sherbet orange by the shellfish and dotted with little bubbles of coconut fat and bits of cilantro. On the side was a house-made tortilla with plenty of weight to it, perfect for dunking. “They do that right,” observed my husband, jabbing a spoon at a severed crab half. Indeed they did, and in a bowl large enough to dunk my face in, should I so choose.
The Típico Guanaco ($9.95) caused some confusion, as guanaco can refer to a llama. It turns out Salvadorans refer to themselves familiarly as “Guanaco,” thus we had ordered a typical Salvadoran meal. That being the case, the Salvadorans are a champion lot of eaters and deserve to take a bow. On a platter the length of his forearm, my husband received a rather hefty steak, three over-medium fried eggs, queso fresco, a side of refried beans, a ramekin of guacamole, and that vaguely cheesy house salsa. Intimidated, and full to the point of incapacitation, we managed to eat less than half before we surreptitiously stuffed the rest into the box that already contained nearly half of our sampler. Our capacity to put away food was clearly inferior to that of the typical Salvadoran, and we snacked on the remains for three days.
The Típico Guanaco is most likely something we won’t attempt to brave again, but that seafood soup is worth a stop for those cruising down Highway 70. It’s definitely worth a few minutes out of your day to grab any of the cheap traditional eats Atlacatl offers; delicious bean and cheese papusas, for example, are only $1.50, and tamales – a bit sweet but still good – are around the same price. And should the craving for deep-fried pork treats strike whilst on the road, there’s always the chicharron.