I was fighting a cold, so I ordered the sopa de gallina india ($12.50), or chicken soup, at Zipotes in Redwood City. A plate arrived with half a roasted chicken, yellow rice, some iceberg lettuce and one slice each of cucumber and tomato. The caldo (broth) is coming, the server told me. After a long wait, during which the chicken cooled completely, the caldo arrived -- a bowl of steaming chicken broth filled with long slices of chayote squash, rounds of zucchini and carrots, and strips of white onion.
What was I supposed to do with it? Eat the chicken and soup separately? Cut off pieces of chicken and put them into the soup? And what about the rice?
"Maybe you're supposed to put it in the soup," my friend suggested as she swallowed a mouthful of pupusa.
Zipotes is a little Salvadoran restaurant in the middle of a strip mall, a few yards from a Latino grocery store. It's a casual, order-at-the-counter spot that draws a loyal crowd. On a recent Sunday around noontime, diners filled the tables, their eyes glued to a large television playing a soccer game.
The name "Zipotes" is a riff on "cipotes," which means children in Salvadoran Spanish. Owner Gilbert Mestizo opened the restaurant two years ago and named it for his three sons. He changed the "c" to a "z" in a nod to his wife's hometown of Zacatecas, Mexico. Mestizo, who trained as an aeronautical engineer and works full time for Recology, grew up in Mejicanos, El Salvador. About 85 percent of the dishes at Zipotes are Salvadoran. The other 15 percent are Mexican.
"(We wanted) to add a little variety to the restaurant," said Mestizo.
Even though many of his customers are of Mexican descent, most people order El Salvador's most popular snack: pupusas ($2.75). A pupusa is a round cake made of masa, or cornmeal dough, that's stuffed with beans, cheese, meat and/or vegetables. At Zipotes, you can see the pupusa masters slapping masa between their hands and then onto the hot griddle until it turns crisp on the outside and melty on the inside. All pupusas come with curtido, a tangy slaw of cabbage, carrots, oregano and vinegar. The sharpness of the slaw cuts the heaviness of the pupusa. The Zipotes version includes a little hot chile, an atypical but welcome addition.
In general, Salvadoran food is mild. Heat seekers will want to give a few whacks to the bottle of Encino hot sauce on the table. There's a housemade watery red sauce that doesn't taste like much but is available to add to your pupusas.
While most Salvadoran restaurants, at least in the Bay Area, only serve pupusas made with corn masa, Zipotes also makes them from rice. According to Mestizo, rice pupusas originated in his mother's hometown of Olocuilta, El Salvador.
"Now that town is very famous for making that kind of pupusa," he said.
Famous or not, the rice pupusas had a gummy quality not present in the corn ones. As for fillings, you can't go wrong with mild melted white cheese and loroco, a tender green flower. Yet the table favorite was the revueltas, an even mix of fried pork, black beans and melted cheese. Eat one, and you'll be full for the day.
Another Salvadoran staple is the tamale. Unlike the Mexican version cooked in a corn husk, these are steamed in banana leaves. The masa becomes supple -- almost creamy -- encasing hunks of moist chicken. Eat yours carefully, as we did find a large bone during one visit.
You can order the tamales a la carte ($2.50) or as part of the filling Salvadoran breakfast ($11.50) of scrambled eggs (with chopped vegetables, upon request), a square of springy queso fresco, black beans mixed with rice and thick homemade tortillas. The beans and rice were the surprising stars with a distinctive meaty quality. Fried plantains came on the side. Plantains are the banana's starchier cousin, and when you fry ripe ones, they turn deeply caramelized on the outside and soft and delectable on the inside. The tortillas were made from the same dough as the pupusas and also griddled. They're bland but cushy and filling. You should tear off pieces; don't attempt to roll them burrito-style.
On the subject of how to eat things correctly, let's go back to that chicken soup, another Salvadoran classic. Mestizo explained that you can eat the chicken separately or put it in the soup. The same goes for the rice. Because my chicken and rice were cold from waiting for so long for the soup to arrive, I added them to the soup where the mild, hot broth instantly moistened the meat. It's worth noting that even when cold, the rice at Zipotes is amazing. Soft and flavorful, it comes with nearly every dish, usually along with equally good refried black beans.
Another chicken dish, the pollo encebollado ($10.50), required no added moisture. The roasted half-chicken was very tender, canvassed with a layer of cooked onion slices. The onions, like most foods that hit the flattop here, were a little greasy, but they did retain some crunch.
One of the Mexican entrees, camarones a la diabla ($12.75), earns its names from the crimson chile sauce pooled underneath the shrimp. Its heat comes from chile de arbol. Tame it with tortillas, beans and rice, but avoid it if you can't handle spicy dishes.
Try a round of empanadas de platano ($5.50). These two egg-shaped fritters made of sweet fried plantains and filled with either refried black beans (my choice, for the sweet and savory contrast) or a virtually tasteless white milk pudding.
Another heavy appetizer meant for sharing is the yuca frita con chicharrón ($8). Yuca is a starchy vegetable, which is cut into thick cuboids, fried and decorated with chewy hunks of pork. Sometimes chicharrones, which are often made from pig skin, can be dry, but these ones came from the leg of the pig for superior meatiness.
On multiple visits, service lagged. We received dishes piecemeal, with long waits between each one. Our drinks came well after we'd already started working on our meals, but several were worth the wait. If you've only had Mexican horchata, try the Salvadoran version. It incorporates six kinds of Central American fruit seeds which are toasted, finely ground and combined with cinnamon, milk and rice to create a very thin, fragrant drink ($3).
On a cold day, try the corn atole ($2.50). Described on the menu as oatmeal, it's actually a sweet corn milk with kernels of corn and, sometimes, a rogue cinnamon stick. For something fruity, there are aqua frescas ($3), light drinks made from fruit and water. On weekends only you can try the ensalada de frutas ($3.75), a very sweet juice teeming with diced fruits including red and green apples, pineapple, and Central America fruits such as marañón, or cashew fruit. I prefered the slightly tangy tamarindo, which looks like dark ice tea. Ultra fine and slightly grainy tamarind pulp collected at the bottom of the glass. Soda drinkers will find the popular Mexican brand Jarritos as well as the old-fashioned glass-bottled Coca Cola.
When you go to Zipotes -- which you absolutely should -- try to be patient. Order some pupusas, some appetizers and maybe an entree to share. Know that not everything will come at once or in the order you intended it, but once it arrives, it will be tasty, hearty and fill you up well into the next day.
828 5th Ave., Redwood City
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m; Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: good