PICO BLVD — Tucked away in the parking lot of the YWCA is a small pop-up stand serving something not commonly found in Santa Monica: pupusas.
For the past three months, Katty Salinas, 35, has been slinging El Salvador’s signature dish to what has become a growing fan base.
Internet searches and word of mouth indicate that Salinas may be the only person whipping up pupusas in town.
“I had been doing it on the side, but I really wanted to do my own thing,” Salinas said as she flipped a bean and cheese pupusa outside the Y earlier this week. “I wanted to show my own food.”
Salinas, a Santa Monica resident for the past five years, created her modest stand primarily because she couldn’t find a decent pupusa on the Westside. She would travel to East Los Angeles to get a fix of what she considers “yummy, yummy” pupusas.
Figuring that she had something unique to offer, she approached YWCA leadership and asked if she could set up shop in their parking lot a couple days a week. Salinas, who is a teacher at the Y and a native of El Salvador, was given the green light and the rest has become local culinary history.
What sets her product apart, she said, is an adamant use of fresh, organic ingredients and a nod to what she considers traditional flavors and techniques she learned in her homeland.
She only buys dried red silk beans imported from El Salvador, which is a staple of the country’s cuisine. Once cooked, she purees the beans into a paste that she uses on most of her varieties. Her masa, or dough, is made by hand.
But of all the traditional ingredients she uses, the one that gives her pupusas a true authentic taste is the loroco flower, which grows on a vine that sprouts the edible blooms.
Salinas combines the earthy-flavored flowers with green bell peppers and a mix of other vegetables and places it at the center of a disc of fresh masa. She adds cheese and then forms the dough around the fillings creating a ball that she then flattens back into a circle, not unlike a tortilla.
She then places the formed pupusa onto a propane-powered griddle and cooks until golden brown and crispy at the edges.
Aside from the loroco pupusa, Salinas offers bean and cheese, pork, spinach and carrot as fillings.
If comments on review site Yelp.com are any indicator, Salinas is on to something. She may not have a storefront, but her creations have earned her five stars, a coveted honor for any business, regardless of size.
During a recent Tuesday, while Salinas was busy at the griddle, Ann Shrake walked up to her stand to order a batch of pupusas for a car-load of hungry kids.
Shrake, whose kids attend classes at the YWCA, had tried a sample before, but never had any pocket cash to pick up a couple of the $3 creations.
“I was really excited when I first tasted them,” Shrake said. “With just a sample I was already a fan.”
To Salinas, it’s a matter of staying true to her roots and her newfound culinary skills that she picked up during a 10-week crash course at Venice’s St. Joseph Center, which offers services and education to needy Westsiders.
It’s those skills in the kitchen that may provide Salinas an even bigger platform for her cooking.
YWCA Executive Director Julia Miele intends on refurbishing the center’s kitchen and opening a cafe that Salinas would operate.
There’s already talk of an expanded menu and a partnership with locally-based Morley Builders to make the cafe a reality.
“It’s something we’d wanted to start for several years,” Miele said of the cafe. “We’re looking to start as early as fall.”
Until the cafe opens, Salinas can be found in her little corner of the YWCA’s parking lot at the corner of Pico Boulevard and 14th Street on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.