Salvadoran fare with flair
Late on a Sunday, we squeeze into Restaurante Sabor Especial's only table and tune our ears to a mouth-watering sound: the pit-pat of thick Salvadoran-style corn tortillas being shaped by hand and plopped onto the griddle. The scent of garlic and sizzling meat wafts out of the open kitchen and mingles with a cloud of vanilla rising from a large pot simmering something sweet.
Salvadoran restaurants are plentiful these days. But the draw at this Chelsea newcomer that opened in June goes beyond the usual tacos and stuffed pupusas. Owner Frida Hernandez and her family use their tiny kitchen to great effect. Dinners are not just eye-poppingly generous and very cheap, the cooking has finesse.
Homemade chicken broth in a bowl of sopa de gallina ($6, weekends only) is heady with cumin and brightened by cilantro and fresh lemon balm leaves. Camarones en salsa ($10) bathes tender shrimp in a cilantro-flecked tomato sauce with the clean taste of shrimp consomme. We spoon it over fluffy rice shored by satisfying red beans, fresh salad, and warm tortillas. A Migueleño pork chop and steak combo plate ($10, below) delivers juicy meats and a hill of garlicky rice and bean pilaf.
This is home-style food, but every plate is pretty and most are lavished with creamy avocado, salty squares of queso anejo (cheese), lime wedges, zesty pico de gallo, and the house's favorite garnish: a flourish of watercress. There's no skimping here, and basics such as avocado-topped soft tacos ($2) and savory stuffed pupusas ($1.50) are done well, as are drinks and desserts. Don't miss fresh cantaloupe juice ($1.75), sweet tamarind juice dotted with slippery tapioca-like chan seeds ($1.75), or atol de elote ($2), a warm drink made from simmered fresh corn.
Dining here may take you out of your comfort zone. Sabor Especial is cash only, the staff speaks only Spanish, and the scruffy former sub shop sits on a busy, fenced-in corner in the shadow of the Tobin Bridge, which looms over the patio.
Meanwhile, the lemon-yellow eight-seat dining area, done up with frilly green curtains, is no bigger than a porch, and the usual huddle of take-out customers keep Sabor Especial as crowded as a rush-hour subway. It's not exactly tourist material. Except for those who put food first.