Another World 

Don’t let the cats scare you away from the Salvadoran treats at El Viroleño.

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What can I say about a drafty, smoky, often noisy restaurant in an all-but-abandoned part of town? I guess I’d say that, if it was in my neighborhood, I’d eat there once a week. Such are the contradictions inherent in reviewing restaurants and the very personal nature of choosing where we dine.

Swing into the empty gravel lot on 500 South, just around the corner from El Viroleño and be prepared for the attack cats. There’s a menagerie of five or six feral felines that hang out near El Viroleño’s Dumpster, in back of the restaurant, and they’re not your standard skittish kitties in the least. They actually attacked my buddy’s Ford Focus, apparently guarding their turf and the Dumpster’s bounty of fish carcasses. It’s all just part of the authentic universe you enter when you dine at what surely is Salt Lake City’s best Salvadoran restaurant, El Viroleño.

Like me, you probably have no reason to be on 800 South between 400 West and 500 West. There’s not much there'except, that is, for El Viroleño and a small Mexican bodega a couple of doors east. It’s not a restaurant you just sort of stumble upon. But a couple of years ago, City Weekly’s real food fiend Editor Ben Fulton wrote the restaurant’s name down on a scrap of paper'which I promptly lost. Then last month, a reader of this column named Ian jogged my memory by telling me of the terrific meals he’d had at El Viroleño, so I decided to check it out for myself. And that, my friends, is the complex system I employ to select restaurants for review.

The first thing you notice about El Viroleño is the smoke. The kitchen’s ventilation system is not up to snuff. So when the cook grills a steak or broils a chicken, the small dining area adjacent to the kitchen fills up with smoke. What you notice next'especially in cold weather'are the drafts. The windows at El Viroleño could use an insulation upgrade, so bring a jacket. Now, you’d think that those drafty windows would help to rid the smoke, but they don’t. That’s OK: Remember, stepping into El Viroleño is like stepping right into Central America. You are definitely not in Utah anymore, and that’s reason enough to visit the place.

Juanita'she’s known as “Juanita de la Liberty Park”'and her husband Reynando own and run the place, which features traditional dishes from El Salvador like pupusas. These are thick tortillas made of masa and stuffed with things like cheese, fried pork rind (“chicharron”) and beans or cheese and “loroco,” which is a Central American flower bud. The pupusas at El Viroleño are a delicious steal, priced at a mere $1.25 each, except for the chicharron pupusa, which will cost you an extra quarter. If you’d care to create your own pupusas at home, El Viroleño sells the soft Salvadoran cheese called “quesillo” along with books, CDs, DVD and trinkets from El Salvador. I highly recommend picking up a copy of Tropical Picante: El Gallo de Mi Mujer to get your party started.

Service at Viroleño, which is handled by a single server, can be dreadfully slow, as at dinner recently, or rapid and efficient, as it was at lunch. All dishes are made from scratch, so some'like the exceptionally tasty carne guisada ($6)'take longer to prepare than others. The carne guisada is worth the wait. The dish features chunks of stewed beef so tender you could literally eat them with a spoon, bathed in a mild (not spicy) but rich tomato and red-chili sauce. For $6 you get that heavenly beef, along with tortillas, rice and a choice of salad or refried beans. I recommend the beans; these are not like the “frijoles” you find in Mexican restaurants. At El Viroleño, the beans are pureed until they are almost gravy-like. You could eat them using a straw, although I mainline mine with a spoon, sopping up every last bean puddle with the homemade tortillas.

“Mojarra frita” ($7) is a whole fried tilapia, served with head, tail and fins intact. It’s simple, but stunningly fresh tasting and good, just like the unadorned broiled chicken (“pollo asado”). The fish might freak out youngsters, but they’ll love the chicken, not to mention the Salvadoran sodas called Kola-Champang. Sadly, there’s no cerveza available at El Viroleño, but the hot chocolate ($1) is made from scratch. At the booth behind ours during lunch last week, Juanita and a helper sat sorting and crushing hundreds of cocoa beans by hand to make the hot chocolate. She offered each of us a cocoa bean, which have a bitter but rich coffee flavor.

The soups'a meal in themselves'at El Viroleño are just crazy good, especially the seafood soup ($7): Squid, crab, shrimp (with heads intact), octopus and fish are all served up in a fragrant seafood broth that is simply delicioso.

If you’re not fluent in Spanish, chances are you’ll be the only gringo in the restaurant who isn’t. This just adds to the otherworldly ambiance and appeal of El Viroleño. It’s a wonderful little mom-and-pop place, and as my informant Ian wrote, “I don’t know if they’d appreciate the publicity or not, but the place is so good I couldn’t help but try to spread the word.” Consider it done.

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