Day 78: Fast food in San Sal

Overland miles: 4147 Tacocount: 68 Days without Sodas: 0

When the time had finally come to leave our temporary home in San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala, and head over the border to El Salvador, the landscape transformed itself overnight. Gone was the peaceful tranquility of the lake we lived beside, brilliantly aquamarine and smooth as a glass table-top in the morning sunshine, save the occasional silent scratch from a lancha. Gone too were the low-hanging trails of cotton-candy clouds, slowly hung out like freshly laundered sheets every afternoon. After 13 tortuous hours on three different busses (the middle one being falsely advertised as a ‘direct’ shuttle to Guatemala City – direct, that is, to six destinations in completely different zones of the same city), we were no longer in Kansas. San Salvador was flash, loud, aggressive and pungent in equal measures. Our main street was a wide boulevard of Northern American scope and swagger. It ran like a shot bolt through the impatient capital, riveted with an infinitely regressing sequence of gas stations and fast-food joints, and piercing the sky with oversized illuminated chain logos, like a gargantuan fairground operating on a runway.

The Golden Arches are calling you

All in all, we hadn’t had a great introduction to the smallest country in Central America. An unpredictable and ever-lengthening international coach service from Guatemala City’s least most excellent bus station (they’re all unremittingly unpleasant) hosted a stream of Salvadorian street vendors dressed in traditional laced pinnies over non-traditional Levi’s, thrusting fried chicken, donuts, tortas and at one point, skewers of grilled meat in our grimy faces. At the El Salvador border late at night, we were surrounded by changers, chancers and charlatans, and hustled out of twenty dollars by the time our passports had been wordlessly stamped. On our eventual arrival in the city, our otherwise welcoming hostel demanded twice the going rate for a litre of bottled water. At least it had stopped raining.

Having passed on the less-than-oven-fresh offerings during the bus-ride, getting a decent feed quickly was a pressing concern. We asked the night concierge which restaurants would still be open at 10pm – Latin America dines early. “Oh, plenty” she asserted confidently. “There’s a big mall just across the Boulevard de Los Heroes – it’s closed now, but there a a number of places out front which will still be open.” Our faces flooded with relief, and we headed out into the balmy San Salvador night.

There is no doubt as to who the ‘heroes’ being immortalised in this quarter of the city are today, and I’ll give you a clue: none of them fought for El Salvador during the War of Independence, although one claimed to be of Colonel rank. Detained at the central reservation by several lanes of honking traffic, some of which were bring chaotically directed by a drunk vagrant waving a dish rag, we had time to review our selection of establishments: Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC and Burger King – all of them offering auto-servico, which meant ‘drive-thru’. There was even Mister Donut, who sounded like a Krispy Kreme style joint, but who seemed to have branched out from his core product significantly.

The tramp mumbled at us incoherently (but still unmistakably in English) and waved us across the pedestrian crossing. Numb with hunger and exhaustion, we scuttled round a security guard fingering his M16 rifle to check out the prices at the nearest restaurant, Wendy’s, and immediately baulked. Their oddly square-shaped burgers were going for about US$6 (£4) – and that didn’t include the ‘speciality’ sandwiches, which were a lot pricier. That’s way more than we would pay for their nearest equivalent in the UK. The others seemed to be much in the same price bracket, as if dining in these establishments constituted a fancy night out for Salvadoreños. Eventually we discovered that at Burger King you could get their Whopper and Big King meals for just under ten dollars, which appeared to be something of a bargain, even if the sickly orange soda that we ordered with it was undrinkable. We sat in the overlit, virtually empty restaurant, bizarrely adorned with abstract artwork depicting our sorry fare, and washed it down with self-sympathy.

It didn’t have to be like this, and so we discovered the next day when we were hanging around the Boulevard to wait for a nearby museum to open up again that afternoon, and happened upon Pinche Taco, a relatively new taqueria in the area. A number of outdoor wooden benches just off the noisy street were set behind high chicken-wire fences, giving it an industrial-chic ambience. The joint specialised in classic Latin American fare: burritos, tacos and tortas, all coming in a variety of styles (they boast 14 flavours of tacos alone). They also offered meal deals, including a hearty soup in place of tepid fries, for just over $4 each, so we ordered a couple of burrito combos. The greaseproof paper-lined trays were brought to our table in no time, looking like this:

Burrito al pastor con sopa

Clare had chosen a chicken burrito and I al pastor (grilled pork in the doner kebab style). The freshly grilled meat was accompanied by a decent helping of rice, beans and fresh salad all wrapped in a tortilla, and were pretty filing: mine also included slices of sweet, tender pineapple that bookended the pork, which gave it the edge. There was also a helping of chimirol (an addictive mixture of onion, tomato, coriander and lime) on the side to give the wrap some extra zip and crunch, plus of course a bowl of three kick-ass chilli salsas to share. Partnered by the soup – a rich tomato base supported by sliced pepper, avocado and lumps of melting cheese, and garnished with crisp tortilla sticks perfect for dunking – it was a stunning combo.

The fact that it was about two-thirds of the average price point for its North American counterparts served to make our find any cheaper. Undoubtedly they will expand the business soon, and if they keep quality as their watchword, they should do pretty well. Much like the In ‘n’ Out Burger in LA, Pinche Taco proves the exception to the well-known rule about speed in the kitchen equalling junk on your plate. I’ve never eaten faster food in El Salvador (indeed we’ve learned that it’s good to order food here up to an hour before you’ll get really hungry), and never found a better value fast food option. So when you need a swift but satisfying pit-stop in San Sal, this is the place to come.

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