Salvadoran classics from North Long Beach:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
You can see the torch-like tower for blocks, a monument to the movie-going experience that scrapes the sky with bubblegum-colored stripes. It rises up from the Atlantic Theatre, a pink and white prewar space that, over the decades, has hosted everything from live nude revues to the New Directions church. The theater is locked up now, but it was once an obvious anchor of the northerly blocks of Atlantic Avenue. These days, there are T-shirt shops, flooring stores, churches and bars in its shadow. But the neighborhood has accepted a new community cornerstone: Chiltepe.
Although there are fewer and fewer full-service restaurants in the northern corners of the city, Chiltepe hasn’t earned its reputation on the simple absence of culinary competition—its Salvadoran specialties are what make the place a destination. But even with its Salvadoran flags and coastal cues, Chiltepe, along with a number of Central American restaurants, also maintains a Mexican menu, which, at least in certain sectors of the Southland, seems more like an obligation than a mark of a kitchen’s flexibility. Chiltepe’s Mexican plates aren’t bad, but burrito-buyers beware: The Salvadoran cooking, not the tacos and tortas, is what makes the restaurant special.
Maybe the most remarkable aspect of Adriana and Ruben Reyes’ restaurant is the size of its menu in relation to the kitchen, a corner space so small it’s surprising there’s no “-ette” attached. Containers of spice are loaded up on shelves high above the counter; refrigerators nearly creep into the dining room. But this doesn’t stop the place from padding out excellent pupusas. As perhaps the most recognizable culinary import from El Salvador, these thick cornmeal discs are essential at Chiltepe.
Though they can range in size from compact pucks to doughy LPs, Chiltepe’s pupusas strike the right balance, stretched out to a diameter roughly that of a diminutive Frisbee disc. The pupusas are small enough to sample, but if your stomach demands only one (there’s chorizo, chicken, shrimp and the like), pick the pupusa revuelta, which packs in probably the three most popular options: chicharrones, cheese and beans. Top it with a few tongfuls of curtido, the consummate pupusa condiment of slightly pickled cabbage, and you have the fullest flavor, a sharp edge added onto the otherwise soft, circular staple.
As single-plate meals go, the pollo encebollado is one of the best options, a huge hunk of bone-in chicken smothered in onions. The chicken is as tender as it gets, but the strength of the dish comes from the onions, their sweet streaks drawn out with a quick sautée before being poured over the bird. There’s also the carne guisado, cubes of beef mixed with carrots, potatoes and other standard stew-fillers. But while it’s easier to eat than the pollo encebollado (there’s no bones about it), the carne guisado doesn’t quite have the same depth of flavor.
Tying together the four corners of each platter’s square meal are rice, beans and a simple salad, a plate big enough to almost always secure some leftovers. And optionally accompanying any meal at Chiltepe is a basket of handmade tortillas, dense things so thick they’re on the same plane as the pupusas. As such, the tortillas pair best with the restaurant’s platters, and, when filled with a scoop of rice, a smearing of beans and a few bites of chicken, do fine to approximate the taco experience.
When the time comes to pick up your tab, make sure you have cash on hand—the restaurant’s credit card machine has a habit of acting up. But Chiltepe’s a trusting place, willing to hold onto the bill even if you need to grab cash at a drugstore ATM. Five minutes later, the bill will be waiting for you as if nothing happened. Only once you return, you’ll be part of the community, a now-familiar face in a restaurant full of them.
CHILTEPE 5631 ATLANTIC AVE | LONG BEACH 90805 | 562.728.8713 | OPEN DAILY 8AM-9PM | FOOD FOR TWO $15-25