Once upon a time, about 30 years ago, there was a doughnut shop in a strip mall in Mountain View. The people of the town were happy with it, but then they started to crave something savory. Many customers were of Salvadoran descent, and they began requesting pupusas, those thick, griddled masa cakes stuffed with melted cheese and other ingredients. Why not use the kitchen during the day to make pupusas, suggested a customer, since the doughnuts were always made in the wee hours? The owners readily agreed.
The townspeople were happy, but then the neighborhood started to change. Many of the Salvadoran customers moved away. Nobody seemed to want doughnuts, either. Business was slow, and new owner Rashami Mulge, who had taken over from his aunt and uncle, needed to make a change. About eight months ago, a customer had an idea. He was a chef who used to work at a Persian restaurant, and he offered to make kebabs. Mulge liked the proposition, so he took doughnuts off the menu and set up his kitchen with one chef preparing Persian kebabs and the other chef preparing the Salvadoran dishes. He renamed the space Kabobs and Pupuseria.
Good news apparently travels slowly because the restaurant was nearly empty during several weekend visits. That's unfortunate because the pupusas are excellent, and the kebabs are just as good as the ones served at a sit-down restaurant but for half the price.
Maybe people are having trouble finding it? A behemoth Cost Plus World Market a few doors down dwarfs the restaurant. When you do walk inside, you might not immediately notice that it has some nice aesthetics. That's because two giant self-serve refrigerators command your focus. They're filled with bottled drinks, including Mexican sodas and horchata. Look beyond these eyesores to discover two-toned wooden tables that complement brown and cream striped walls.
Walk up to the a beige mock-marble counter to place your order. Behind the smudged Cassio register, a large menu has been tacked to the wall, flanked on both sides by pictures of nearly every item. Stop yourself from making any negative judgments about a restaurant that shows pictures of its food. As you scan the menu, ask yourself: "Am I in the mood for Persian kebabs or Salvadoran food?" It's a trick question because the answer is both. Order a medley of items for your table to share, made easy because pupusas and kebabs are available a la carte or as a plate with rice.
Try the chicken thigh kebab ($12.99), its bone-in meat succulent with blistered edges that hint of citrus. A yogurt marinade keeps it moist. The Cornish game hen ($14.99) and chicken breast kebabs ($12.99) suffer from a bit of dryness, just in their end pieces, but a quick squeeze of a lemon wedge will solve the problem. Soft basmati rice, tinted yellow from saffron, comes with your kebab, as does a forgettable salad of iceberg lettuce, tomato and raw onion. In typical Bay Area style, you can also order your kebabs wrapped in a tortilla as a burrito ($6.99).
Chicken also proves to be a great choice on the Salvadoran side of the menu. What's listed as a chicken stew ($11.99) is actually a chicken thigh lounging in a rust-colored gravy that's a bit thicker than enchilada sauce. The chicken flakes off the bone effortlessly, ready to be dragged through the sauce that's flavored with dried red chiles. Like all the Salvadoran plates here, this one comes with rice speckled with a few carrot and green pepper bits and refried beans that tend toward the runny side.
A chicken soup ($12.99 ) is not as satisfying as the stew, namely because of the lack of vegetables in the huge bowl of broth. As is the Salvadoran custom, the chicken comes on the side where most people order it grilled, though you can also opt for it fried. You can eat it separately or shred it into the soup. At some restaurants, you need to add it to the soup because the chicken is too dry on its own. Not here. The grilled version is perfectly tender. Both the soup and stew come with a stack of earthy Salvadoran tortillas. These are just like pupusas without the filling. Somehow each one manages to stay hot from the top of the stack to the bottom.
Definitely order some pupusas ($2.75) for the table. There are seven types to choose from, filled with melted Monterey Jack cheese and ingredients like zucchini, beans or locoro, a type of edible flower. Unlike pupusas found elsewhere, these don't leave an oozy pile of cheese grease on your plate. (Don't mistake these for diet food either. Pupusas are naturally heavy.) Eat them with the accompanying curtido, a cabbage slaw whose vinegary bite will vary slightly depending on when you visit, but does its job of cutting the grease. You'll also receive a bowl of thin, watery salsa that always accompanies pupusas but never seems to taste like much, no matter where I've tried it.
The person working at the counter may or may not offer you a bottle of chutney with your food. Owner Mulge is Indian, and his aunt makes a murky chile-infused oil that will burn off your tongue should you try more than a drop. But you absolutely should try a drop. It has a touch of sweetness despite all the fire and goes beautifully with the pupusas and chicken soup, since the Salvadoran food is characteristically mild.
If your palate runs salty, try an order of fried yucca with chicharrones ($9.99) for the table. Yucca is a starchy vegetable similar to a potato. The chef cuts it into squat pieces, thicker than a steak fry, and deeply fries them until they turn light gold. The texture is starchier, firmer and not as buttery as a potato, but this is much softer than some other versions. Scattered around the yucca are soft, moist pieces of pork just the right size for popping into your mouth. The pork is too salty to eat on its own and must be combined with the yucca and curtido.
A side of sweet fried plantains ($6.99) can also counteract the sodium. These pan-fried relatives of the banana are creamy inside and even better when you dip the slices into your cooling dish of crema (similar to sour cream).
Despite serving two cuisines very well, Kabobs and Pupuseria doesn't always hit the mark. Falafels ($8.99), which are not specific to Persian cuisine, taste as if they've been microwaved rather than fried. A Salvadoran chicken tamale ($2.50) steamed in banana leaves was mushy with almost no chicken inside.
Aside from a few misses, this doughnut shop turned pupuseria and kabob restaurant produces remarkably good food despite an unlikely concept.
"Everybody is so skeptical until they come and try it, and they love it," Mulge said.
I believe him.
Kabobs and Pupuseria
1910 West El Camino Real, Mountain View
Hours: Monday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Noise level: low