El Atlacatl: A South Florida Institution
At El Atlacatl, a decades-old restaurant in Little Havana, you have a better chance of being served by owner Napoleon Moreno's brown-eyed daughters than a waitress. Karla, 28 years old, and Flor, 25, have infectious smiles, hourglass figures, and long brown hair that fades to auburn around their narrow, tanned faces. Along with their twin 21-year-old brothers, Napoleon and Claudio, they push the sopa de res, an intensely flavored corn-yellow soup with big chunks of carrot and potato and rich, fatty knots of tender beef. It's ordered by nearly every table every day.
billwisserphoto.com The pupusa at El Atlacatl.
"If there's a table of four, someone will order it as an extra so everyone can get a bite," Karla says.
It's mirrored by sopa de gallina, a similar-looking soup that features a once-stringy old hen instead of beef. The slightly gamey bird is roughly chopped and slowly cooked until the meat becomes buttery soft and the attached sinew a richly flavored jelly.
The humble bird is also dipped in cornmeal and then wrapped and steamed in a cassava leaf that lends a woody, herbal fragrance to the sweet, rich tamale.
The Moreno family, which came to Miami from El Salvador, is an example of a whole generation of Central Americans, from Hondurans to Mexicans to Nicaraguans, who flooded South Florida in the late '70s and early '80s. They escaped war and political upheaval, bringing millennia-old cuisine with them. Archaeologists have found evidence of El Salvador's most famous dish, pupusas, dating back more than a thousand years. The thick white cornmeal tortilla is most often stuffed with cheese, beans, and ground pork and then griddled until crunchy and pleasantly charred.
Herbs and seasonings found only in small swaths of Central America are prevalent in the dishes these immigrants brought along. Loroco, an aromatic edible flowering vine that has the distinct, earthy flavors of artichoke and nuts is a key ingredient in pupusas. A spice mixture called Pipil, named for indigenous tribes of the region, is a potent combination of annatto, clove, allspice, and black pepper. It's a staple in Salvadoran meat and vegetable dishes.