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The Spots: Marleny’s, 3201 Mount Pleasant St. NW, (202) 387-2159, Don Julio’s Grocery, 1460 Park Road NW, (202) 667-1840, Pupuseria San Miguel, 3110 Mount Pleasant St. NW, (202) 387-5410
The Cuisine: Salvadoran
The Go-To Dish: Pupusa, pupusa, pupusa
The Scoop: Setting out to find the best pupusa in Washington is like trying to find the best Swedish meatballs in Stockholm or the finest borscht in Kiev. Which is why I had to start with small, manageable chunks of the D.C. metro area, like Mount Pleasant, where I recently hit up three pupuserias (yes, all in the same day) and survived the carb shock to tell about it.
I began my journey at Marleny’s. It’s a cozy spot featuring a full bar with all your favorites, even Regia Extra, a smooth Salvadoran lager in a big bottle. I ordered two pupusas de queso ($1.50 each), and they came out hot and steamy, perfectly crisp. Even better, they managed to avoid that maize taste, which often mars a lot of pupusas. The cheese, slightly burned, still had decent flavor.
Pushing the limits of what’s technically Mount Pleasant, Don Julio’s Grocery is difficult to spot from the street. It’s underneath a barber shop and virtually invisible from the north end of Park Road. Inside, I found a fully stocked Salvadoran grocery with a kitchen in the back. I went up to the register and calmly ordered two pupusas in my best 5th grade Spanish ($2.65 for both). The man running the shop, who introduced himself as Willie, gestured toward some ready-to-go pupusas in nearby boxes. I refused them, asking for fresh ones from the kitchen. Willie said that was the best idea he’d heard all day.
Willie’s pupusas were not as crisp as the ones at Marleny’s and had a bit of that maize taste, but the queso was top-notch. Don Julio’s wrapped the curtido separate instead of placing it alongside the pupusas, a service I greatly appreciated. Curtido is the Salvadoran cabbage salad that everyone loves to throw on top of their pupusas, but personally, I think the slaw messes with the taste of the dish.
Now two pupuserias in, I waddled back toward Mount Pleasant Street and made one last call at Pupuseria San Miguel, where I ordered two more griddled rounds ($1.50 each). This was the pupusa that confused me most: It definitely had the most flavorful queso of the three, but it was probably the least crispy and it smacked of maize. As I stuck my fork into each pupusa, the queso oozed out, and even though I was full, I couldn’t resist.
The Verdict: My favorite pupusa came from Marleny’s. It was crisp, full of flavor, and ridiculously cheap. Don Julio’s Grocery‘s pupusas make for a great lunch; just make sure to ask for them fresh. Pupuseria San Miguel doesn’t make a bad pupusa, but even the great tasting queso can’t compensate for the round’s lack of crispness.