The cooks at Mama Tita take pains to point out the many ways their cooking is not Mexican. Otherwise, why would a diner choose this basic Mexicantown storefront from among the dozens of others in the neighborhood?
Tita Muñoz and daughter Evelyn serve Salvadoran antojitos (appetizers), soups and breakfasts to a mostly Mexican clientele (all the Salvadorans are in Pontiac, they say), patting out tortillas the old-fashioned way, by hand, and importing ingredients as needed.
If you've never had a handmade tortilla, be prepared for something very different from the thin factory-made rounds that have become ubiquitous in Mexico as well as the United States. When I lived in Guatemala in 1986, the ever-present sound issuing from the doorways of homes, overheard from restaurant kitchens was of women's hands slap-slap-slapping masa (corn dough) into thickish rounds. I've mourned the turn to store-bought tortillas easy for me to say, since I never had to spend my days slaving over a hot comal. As so often, a step toward the liberation of women is not a step toward better eating.
But at Pupusas Mama Tita, the old ways survive. You'll be served a smallish tortilla, thicker than a pancake, that doesn't taste so different from the thin version but is, unless nostalgia is making a fool of me, much more satisfying.
Mama Tita doesn't serve a full menu, but the offerings are enough to give you a feel for Salvadoran food and to fill you up. It may remind you more of Puerto Rican food than of Mexican less spicy, with lots of yuca and plantains.
The Salvadoran national dish, the pupusa, is a split tortilla filled with cheese, chicharron (fried pork skin), beans or a combination, and cooked on a griddle. As a greedy American, I'd have liked a higher filling-to-tortilla ratio, but this is indeed comfort food, especially the chicharron version, rich and greasy. The pupusa of cheese and loroco a Salvadoran flower bud whose flavor is closest to asparagus is also interesting.
My favorite dish is yuca with chicharron. The bland fried yuca is an excellent foil for the chicharron, rather like gnarly, salty bacon, if you like your bacon crisp. (Some people find chicharron too tough, but Mama Tita's is less so than most.) The dish is served with curtido, a tart slaw of cabbage, carrots and hot vinegar that's a perfect contrast to both. Try combining them all in one bite.
The tamales are also tasty, filled with pork and chicken, as are pastelitos de carne, beef meat pies, although, again, you may wish for more filling. Salvadoran tamales are wrapped in a plantain leaf before steaming. I can't vouch for this making any difference at all from the corn husk-wrapped Mexican version.
Mama Tita's horchata is distinctive, though. The person who inserted the English translations on the menu was thinking Mexican when he or she wrote "rice water." Salvadoran horchata is made from a long list of nuts and seeds, including peanuts, cashews, squash seeds, morros and cacao, ground in a blender with water. The result is richer, deeper and less sweet. Evelyn Muñoz says it's expensive to make but a "small" glass will cost you just a dollar.
On the weekends, the cooks make soup from beef feet and stomachs with carrots, yuca, chicken, green plantains and zucchini. It's not the taste but the texture of stomach (and tripe) that I can't get past. If this acquired taste/texture is for you, this is the real deal. A large bowl, called "small," costs just $3.50.
Is there a better breakfast than fried plantain with frijoles and rich Central American crema? Mama Tita serves the plantain whole: crackly crisp on the outside, hot and sweet mushiness within. The crema is a very slightly tangy version of cream, and the refried beans are puréed just as smooth and creamy, less dry and thick than in a Mexican place.
Eggs are also available, but note that the translations of "over easy" and "scrambled" have been reversed on the menu. Ask for one to get the other.
The first time I visited the restaurant, Mama Tita emerged from the kitchen, and her greeting was so warm that my companion assumed we knew each other from the old country. I almost thought so myself. Try Mama Tita to discover what someone else's comfort food is like; it may become yours too. Hours are 10 a.m.-10 p.m., every day.
After 10-plus years, this will be my last review for the MT, as the food section takes on new voices. I'll miss my readers and both the compliments and the brickbats they hurled my way. Favorite insult: "You flesh-craved carnivore!" Happy eating to all.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.