Delicious Salvadoran tamales and pupusas at Pilar's Cafe are handmade and cooked to order
I had been looking at the Pilar's Tamales website to figure out which of their Salvadoran tamales and pupusas to have for dinner when I noticed the advice that customers should call ahead to order and plan on take-out. The handmade tamales and pupusas that make up most of the menu are cooked to order in about 20 minutes.
When we arrived I saw that Pilar's Cafe may be tiny, but it definitely has a big heart. It brings a bright fiesta atmosphere to an un-lovely little strip mall on West Liberty Street near Stadium, and the kitchen at the back is bigger than the restaurant space up front. That kitchen is where owner Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers prepares the Salvadoran cuisine that Pilar's Tamales (which includes Pilar's Cafe, Pilar's Cart and Pilar's Catering) have been known for the past 11 years.
Pilar, she explained to me, is a family name which Nolasco-Rivers' mother, Lilian, first used in her catering business 20 years ago. Using that name was a way for Nolasco-Rivers to honor her mother, and her aunt Pilar.
I ended up calling three times before I finally got my dinner correctly ordered. But each time I called, Nolasco-Rivers was as patient and helpful as she could be.
What Pilar's Cafe may lack in square footage, it makes up for in eye-popping color. Every surface but the wood plank floor is either fire-engine red, school-bus yellow or army green. Latin music is likely to be playing, and there are big jars of fresh flowers near the counter where you order.
The scene inside reminds me of the farmers market: a crush of friendly people waiting patiently to place their order and pick up their food. Two large, communal tables in the small space seat about 16 people comfortably, or up to 19 in an "emergency."
2262 W. Liberty, Ann Arbor
- Hours: Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat.10 a.m.-6 p.m.
- Plastic:Visa, Mastercard, American Express
- Liquor: None
- Prices: Inexpensive, tamales $4 each or 3/$10
- Noise level: Moderately loud
- Wheelchair access:Yes
We were prepared for a take-out meal, but when we arrived just before 6 p.m., we were happy to see that the tables were available. Just a few minutes later, things started really hopping. But we were ensconced on our wooden benches, and a nice server promptly brought us our drinks and told us that our food would be out shortly.
We started with horchata, a sweet, milky (but non-dairy) drink made of ground rice and ground morro seeds. The morro seeds, which come from the gourd of the calabash tree, separate Salvadoran horchata from Mexican horchata, and add a sweet coconutty flavor. Nolasco-Rivers also adds cinnamon, brown sugar and vanilla to her excellent horchata. Served on ice, the horchata is somehow both savory and sweet and tastes like delicious rice pudding in a glass.
The tamarind drink, made from the flesh of brown tamarind pods, was also excellent — tart and vegetal, something like lemonade with a hint of green pepper. The spicy mocha — a blend of coffee and hot chocolate with a pinch of cayenne — was too mild for me. I didn't find that either the coffee or the chocolate flavor stood out or was improved by the other. My biggest complaint was simply that it tasted like weak hot chocolate.
But the hibiscus drink, which I tried on a different trip, was also wonderful. This drink, brewed from dried red hibiscus flowers, didn't have the cloying sweetness that it often has in other establishments, just a refreshing tart floral, berry-like taste.
The first dish we shared at Pilar's was the fried yuca root, made from the peeled, cooked inner flesh of the stocky brown cassava root native to South America. Also known as yuca frita, Pilar's menu describes these small starchy squares as "a tropical French fry," and serves them piping hot with an exquisitely light salty, spicy coating. The texture of cassava is very similar to potato, but the taste a little sweeter. I thought they were even better than French fries, and we couldn't stop eating them.
A generous portion of fried yuca is served with a house-made salsa dipping sauce. A salad of shredded fresh cabbage, studded with little pieces of tomato and coated with lime juice shares the plate.
Options for tamales at Pilar's include pork, chicken and cheese, chorizo, sweet plantain, jalapeno and cheese and tempeh. The pork tamale is filled with shredded pork, small chunks of potatoes, and bits of olives and capers. According to Nolasco-Rivers, this is her most traditional tamale. She says at home in San Salvador, this tamale would be wrapped in a banana-leaf and made with expensive imported capers and olives that would be purchased only for the holidays. It is bigger than most Mexican tamales and at Pilar's comes without the wrapper it is steamed in, usually with a side of salsa.
We also tried the tempeh tamale, an all-vegan tamale with big chunks of mild, slightly chewy marinated tempeh, and small amounts of potatoes, olives, and capers. Although I am not vegan, I appreciate that the many vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian and dairy-free options are clearly marked on the menu.
The tamales are obviously made by hand from good (and often local) ingredients, but I would like mine to have had a little more of the filling. The steamed masa itself is tasty but can be on the heavy side. We didn't try every type of tamale, so it may just be the ones that we happened to get.
The pupusas, though, will bring me back again and again. A pupusa is like a thick, stuffed tortilla. Grilled, with melted cheese inside, it seems like the Salvadoran equivalent to stuffed pizza. The outside is crisp and corny, and the inside soft and melty. We tried the black bean and the chicken pupusas. Both were excellent, but I especially loved the deep savory buttery taste of the black bean version. Both were served with a side of traditional Salvadoran curtido — a slaw of cabbage, carrot, onion and Mexican oregano dressed with a little cider vinegar that provides a tangy crunchy counterpoint.
On the phone with Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers after my visit, she explained the art of making pupusas.
She said: "The pupusa — it's definitely the food of my paisanos; it's very much a Salvadoran native food. You start with masa which is finely ground, like for making bread. Then to the corn masa, you just add cold water. No seasonings, no salt or anything.
"When you have a big ball of dough, you take about three ounces of the masa and stuff it with organic refried beans, cheese, pork or chicken. These would all be pureed. Then you take another piece of dough, about two ounces, and you close it back up and it looks like a little baseball. Then the art of pupusa, which is really beautiful, is rolling it by hand, where it's going to be flat again and the food is going throughout the tortilla. Then they're grilled, and everything melts and goes all over inside. It's pretty time consuming, and you do it when you have a lot of patience.
"In El Salvador, you can't have pupusas without curtido, and you can't have curtido without pupusas. Pupusa is a hand food. The way you eat it is you tear off a little piece of pupusa, then stuff it with curtido, and dip it into salsa or drizzle salsa on the top. In El Salvador at a pupuseria, you don't even get silverware...They taste better when you're literally licking your fingers. And I know because I've tried it both ways."
For dessert we shared the chocolate rice pudding and a generous square of bread pudding. Both were served appealingly warm. Each of these desserts is listed on the menu as being "made with love by Grandma Lilian." The bread pudding was notable for its firm texture, and rich eggy flavor. It was not too sweet, and was nicely complemented with a few (but not too many) raisins at the bottom.
Although the tiny space of the cafe was full of people, each course of our meal came out with perfectly timed grace, piping hot. Eventually, we shared our table with others, but there was plenty of room and it only added to the friendly atmosphere. Maybe it was a little loud, but it felt like a happy party.
When I came back for lunch another day to try the loroco and cheese pupusa that had not been available at dinner, I noticed a few things that I missed on my initial visit: the blue and white Salvadoran flag, the tourist map of El Salvador, and the hand-lettered sign that said, "If you need tamales fast call 929-4161." And even more jars of flowers. At that lunchtime, I arrived on the early side, ordered, and by the time I had done a little shopping at the Mexican grocery, Tienda la Libertad next door, my loroco and cheese pupusa was ready.
On the phone afterward with Nolasco-Rivers, she explained to me that loroco (also called Quilite) is a special edible flower bud, native to El Salvador, that tastes something like asparagus. It's something that represents a cherished part of her food traditions that she makes the effort to bring to her customers here.
Although Nolasco-Rivers carries on traditions of El Salvador, she's not chained to them. She makes an effort to incorporate local and organic ingredients (which are listed on her menus) and she still loves experimenting. She says that the eight years she's spent bringing her tamale cart to the Ann Arbor Farmers Market has had an effect.
"When you're surrounded by all these wonderful vegetables, you can't help changing even more. My adventures with all the possible tamales that I could make started with inspiration at the Farmers' Market — butternut squash, summer squash, berries. That's when I thought — we could make so many different types of tamales I don't think there's a limit to tamales — I dream about all the tamales that I don't have enough time to make."
In Ann Arbor since 1992, Nolasco-Rivers has had the Pilar's Cafe space now for more than two years and hinted that there might be bigger things on the horizon.
When I told her that it seems that Ann Arbor has embraced her she said, "It's been a real blessing to have a place where I feel people's love and appreciation. My customers are incredible, and they understand what goes into the food, the connections, and the stories that we share. At the restaurant, sometimes with people I never met in my life, we share a story and at the end of it you're tearing up and giving a hug. It's not just the food, it's also the people and the love that's shared."
With the skill and hand labor involved in making each item on the menu, the organic and local ingredients, the affordable prices, the overall deliciousness of the food and the bright personality behind Pilar's Cafe, it's hard to think of a better value for a meal out. I'll be calling ahead and stopping by again.
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.