Editor’s Note: El Centro is now closed.
Sisters Helen, Cici, and Sara Villeda opened their tiny pupusería (pronounced pooh-pooh-seh-REE-uh: read our Minneapolis-St. Paul pupusería roundup here), El Centro, on Lake Street in Minneapolis just three weeks ago. The space (formerly occupied by Rotisseria), with room only for a half dozen tables, is small. The menu is deceptively limited. But, as their business cards read: “La calidad y el sabor hablan por si solos.” And, indeed, the quality and flavor of everything I’ve tried at El Centro do speak for themselves. The more of their menu I try, the more of it I want to try.
Their pupusas ($2.50-2.75, depending on the fillings), filled with mozzarella cheese as is typical at pupuserías in Minneapolis-St. Paul, are tender on the inside and slightly brittle on the outside, as they should be. Helen Villeda says that the revueltas (mixture of fillings, pronounced ray-VWELL-toss) pupusa is their most popular. The classic curtido slaw and mild tomato sauce are brought to your table, so that you may serve yourself. The curtido is a little heavy on the vinegar but has a nice crunch and peppery bite. The cheese in one pupusa I tried was overheated, but I’m sure El Centro will iron that sort of wrinkle out as they fine-tune the details in the weeks ahead.
The deep-fried plantains, tostones (pronounced toe-STONE-ess, $5), served with a garlic or tomato sauce, are a revelation: crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside. These are absolutely crave-worthy.
The Panes con Pollo (pronounced PANN-ess cone PO-yo, $6.50, includes a hard-boiled egg) doesn’t sound that compelling. It’s hard to muster up enthusiasm for Bread with Chicken. Until you try El Centro’s. It’s not just a sandwich, but a French roll, split open and laden with a hunk of roasted chicken breast, grilled salad (lettuce and slices of tomato, radish, and cucumber), and mayonnaise, then ladled with a spoonful of chicken broth. The chicken broth is from a family recipe, according to Helen Villeda. She says, laughing: “We put it on everything. It’s our secret ingredient.” The rolls are supplied by the bakery at Supermercado La Mexicana on Lake Street.
Like most everything on El Centro’s menu, the beverages are made from scratch. The horchata (pronounced or-CHA-tah) rice drink is rich and creamy, with flecks of vanilla. The fresco fruit drink is light and refreshing, with traces of strawberry and pineapple pulp.
Other items from scratch are the crisp tortillas for the El Salvadoran-style (crunchy) enchiladas, the flan, and the arroz con leche dessert, which is so time-consuming to prepare that it is only offered on weekends. Other menu options include a fresh fruit salad with yogurt, a fresh vegetable salad, chicken or cheese taquitos, and a plato tipico breakfast plate. The children’s menu, $3, includes a pupusita, little pupusa, as one of the options.
If you’re a fan of the fruit popsicles at Helados y Paletas La Chiquita on St. Paul’s West Side (and if you’re not, you should be!), then have a peek at El Centro’s freezer-case. Helen Villeda previously worked with La Chiquita’s Victor Cruzalta; as a result, they have formed an alliance: La Chiquita will be serving El Centro’s pupusas and El Centro will be serving La Chiquita’s popsicles.
Helen Villeda tells me that most of the recipes used at El Centro are family recipes from the Villedas’ native El Salvador, from which they emigrated 10 years ago. Other recipes are from friends.
El Centro has been experimenting with daily menu specials, along the lines of pollo dorad0 with rice and salad or tostones with shrimp, typically priced at $7.50. One item, fried yuca, has been so popular that they’ve decided to make it a regular menu item. Also, Helen Villeda says: “We will be offering different dishes from different countries.” She also says they are focusing on providing a comfortable atmosphere and good food at a good price.
While Mañana in St. Paul may still have an edge over El Centro for pupusas, El Centro’s pupusas are very good, better than most (including the ones at Pupusería El Rincón Salvadoreño in Mercado Central down the street), and their tostones, Panes de Pollo, fresco, and horchata are outstanding. I can’t wait to try everything else on their menu.
Pupusería & Restaurant on East Lake Street in Minneapolis
1532 E Lake St
Minneapolis, MN 55123
OWNERS: Helen, Cici, and Sara Villeda
Daily: 10am-9pm (when they’re busy, until 10pm)
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $2.50-7.50