It was such an under-the-radar change that I didn't even know about it until I walked in to have dinner one evening.
As I walked into my old favorite El Salvador on East Jefferson Boulevard, I was greeted by a big “Cheros y Chapines” sign along the top of the wall. The menu had not changed much, nor had the rest of the decor, but there were different people working there, so I knew there were new owners before I even asked.
Fear set in, of course, and that was followed by terror when I was told there were no pupusas available. Luckily – or unluckily – it was simply a matter of bad timing the night I was there because the restaurant had run out. They are still the backbone of the menu, and they are still delicious.
My pork and cheese had plenty of both inside, and the exterior was lightly browned on the flat-top griddle to give it just a whisper of texture. The fresh white masa patties sandwiched around the filling was soft and seemed creamy on the palate with a nice punch of corn sweetness.
All the ones I had – from simple cheese to the robust pork, beans and cheese – were delicious, but there was one I struggled with. The jalapeño and cheese just had too much peppery heat from the heavy amount of still-raw pepper pieces inside.
It didn't help that Cheros y Chapines' slaw – pupusas are traditionally topped with the cabbage and pepper mix and drizzled with a straightforward red sauce (not salsa) – had a little zip to it from bits of jalapeño pepper.
My salsa was also quite a bit spicier than I am used to during one visit, and during the other came off as very bland. Fresh salsa in the winter can be a challenge given the ingredients one has to use, but the contrast was too stark.
I usually get pupusas as a side or appetizer if I do not get them with or as my meal, and they will likely be my only appetizer from here on out because the tostadas were not up to snuff.
The order included three crispy corn tortilla rounds, one topped with refried black beans, one with guacamole and one with salsa. All of them were also topped with a garnish of dried cilantro, onion slices and queso fresco. The bean was my favorite in terms of flavor, but those beans were cold, which was a big downer. Even the tortillas were cold instead of fresh and hot like the tortilla chips. All of them would have fared much better had they been warm.
Given my love of pupusas I usually never consider tacos, but I was pleasantly surprised by the chicken taco, which is even more surprising given traditional taqueria-style chicken tacos seldom impress me. Cheros y Chapines used big chunks of chicken that were hard seared to add flavor in addition to texture. The chicken was seasoned well and the inside was moist and juicy. I enjoyed them even more than the carne asada steak, which is rarely the case anywhere.
The fried chicken also impressed me. It was traditionally breaded and not packed with any fiery spices or anything to emphasize that it was a south-of-the-border dish. What made it so good was that this half-bird was a bone-in piece that had been deboned and butterflied. It was crispy, flavorful and very enjoyable.
Chicken again took center stage in what may be one of the best winter doldrum-curing dishes in the area. The Sopa de Pollo was a simple soup with chicken pieces, big chunks of squash and yucca – cooked down until soft like a potato – and carrots, along with diced onions and a few tomato bits in a rich, cloudy broth. What took it over the top was tearing off pieces of freshly made, thick masa tortillas (think pupusas with no stuffing) and dropping them into the broth. The white cornmeal soaked up the salty broth and basically became dumplings. It was the kind of soup you will not forget and will also not forget to have again and again.
When it came to the two other dinners I tried, the chicken was not the winner as the shredded beef shined brightest.
The Guatemalen chicken and rice – Pepian De Res O Pollo – featured chicken that had stewed a long time, so it fell from the bone and was super-tender. The skin was left on, however, and was flabby and useless. The brown sauce it was cooked in, which is made with squash seeds, was very mild but had a well-balanced flavor that seasoned the chicken nicely. It also had carrot and potato slices that were oddly stiff and needed to be stewed a bit longer.
It was simply OK, especially when compared to the shredded beef – Hilachas De Res. The sauce this beef was stewed in had much more depth and richness and less fresh, acidic tomato in its base, so it really stuck to your ribs. The stringy meat was super-tender, just like the chicken, and it, too, had the same undercooked potatoes and carrots. It was a heavy dish and I struggled to even put a dent in it, but it was simply perfect for this cold, snowy time of year.
There were some hurdles with the new staff. I struggled to communicate with one server who spoke little English and was really not sure if my order was understood as she shuffled off to the kitchen. A woman who I suspect was the owner came out shortly after to go over it with me and ensure it was right. I also had no luck when I tried to call and find out if pupusas were available before my second visit for the same reason.
During that second visit, however, the communication gap was not nearly as troublesome, and my experience was less stressful as a result.
Restaurant: Cheros y Chapines
Address: 515 E. Jefferson Blvd.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Pupusas ($2 to $2.50 depending on filling), tostadas ($5), chicken soup ($9), beef ($9), chicken ($9)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★★ (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at email@example.com; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Cheros y Chapines
Out of a possible five