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Salvadoran Surprise 

Who knew the West Side was rife with pupusas?

After a decade of covering food in this town, it's refreshing to learn there are still some surprises left to uncover. Take this one: For years, two Salvadoran eateries have operated on Cleveland's West Side while barely being noticed by those outside the Latin community. Less than a mile apart, Pupuseria La Bendicion and La Casa Tazumal are pupuserias — meaning they specialize in those little Central American treats called pupusas.

Fans of the bygone La Tortilla Feliz, or the brilliant but short-lived La Brasa Grill, may have experienced the consummate joys of a freshly prepared pupusa. Walk into either Bendicion or Tazumal and you'll hear the telltale pat-pat-pat emanating from the kitchen. It is the sound of corn dough being kneaded and stuffed by hand. The patties move from the cook's hands to the hot griddle, where they sear until golden brown.

While both spots are pupuserias, the eateries are far from identical. Less formal and more akin to a quick-casual take-out joint, Bendicion ("blessing") sits in a tiny strip and features just a dozen or so seats. Orders are taken at the counter and delivered to your table. Behind the counter sits the open kitchen, where hair-netted ladies prepare the food. Drinks are self-serve from the cooler.

At just $1.60 a pop, the pupusas here are some of the tastiest steals in town. Served simply on a paper plate with plastic cutlery, they resemble very thick tortillas. Crisp and corny on the outside, the cakes are filled with cheese, refried beans and cheese, or a zesty combination of cheese, beans, and fried pork. If you're lucky, a bit of cheese will have oozed out of the pupusa onto the grill, creating a glistening shard of cheesy brittle.

The thick, stuffed treats are presented with customary accoutrements that include spicy cabbage slaw and salsa roja, a mild tomato salsa. When all elements are ingested in concert, you get that dreamy commingling of textures and flavors — crunchy veggies, buttery crust, melty interior, and tangy sauce — that makes for memorable eating.

Bendicion also sells amazing soft tacos: diced grilled beef, lettuce, and tomato piled atop two warm, soft, corn tortillas. No sour cream here, just fresh lime and a side of spicy ranchero sauce.

Tamales are on the menu too: steamed in a banana leaf for a pudding-like texture. Fillings include braised chicken and potato, refried beans, or scrambled eggs.

Connected to a house just off Lorain Avenue, La Casa Tazumal feels more like an extension of somebody's home than it does a restaurant. The small, spare dining room is enlivened by a forest of live, tropical plants. Service here is sit-down, and the one doing the serving is the sweet, matronly proprietor. As at Benedicion, it wouldn't hurt to brush up on your Spanish or be prepared to point.

Tazumal's pupusas are made to order and stuffed with either cheese and beans or a combination of pork, beans, and cheese. They, too, arrive with fiery cabbage slaw, served in a glass jar with tongs, and tangy, housemade tomato salsa. Tamales are as supple here as the ones from down the street, filled with tender chicken and potato.

Tazumal skips tacos in favor of chile rellenos, beef stew, and tripe soup. Casamiento — "marriage" in Spanish — is a mash-up of delicious refried beans and cooked rice, the black and white symbolizing the tux and gown. The dish is served with avocado, cheese, and sour cream, along with thick, warm tortillas.

Next time I'll pass on the grilled steak, a chewy and altogether unpleasant piece of meat. I did enjoy the mountain of sautéed onions, fluffy Spanish rice, and shredded salad on the side.

It's now been weeks since I tasted a pupusa from either restaurant, and frankly, I'm dying to return. But the craving to unearth another obscure delicacy propels me ever forward — and sadly, never back.

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