Joco Diversions

At El Pulgarcito, Salvadoran specialties come down to a new generation

Growing up, Stacey Zamora loved her mom’s cooking.

On weekends Zamora’s mom, Maria Menjivar, would make all the specialties of her native El Salvador. Lightly sweet, pillowy-soft friend plantains, served piping-hot with fresh crema. Pupusas — thick corn tortillas overflowing with queso fresco and shredded pork — served with a curtido, a cool fermented cabbage slaw.

Zamora remembers family friends begging her mom to make them corn tamales and Caldo de Pata, or cow hoof soup, a traditional Salvadorean soup made by simmering beef bones for hours.

In 2005, Menjivar decided to open a restaurant. El Pulgarcito, located west of Johnson Drive and I-35 in Shawnee, is one of very few restaurants in the Kansas City area that serves traditional Salvadoran food (El Salvadoreno in Overland Park opened in 2011).

Because many customers were unfamiliar with pupusas — and cow hoof soup — Menjivar added Mexican tacos and American hamburgers to the menu.

But the pupusas have always been El Pulgarcito’s top seller. And now Zamora, who recently took over the restaurant with her brother Steven Ruano, is learning to make them herself.

“It’s a long process,” Zamora says. First she has to slow-cook and season the pork. She shreds the monterey jack and queso fresco cheese by hand. The corn tortillas are handmade, too. Then there’s the curtido — made from scratch with freshly chopped cabbage, carrot and onion.

The broth for the cow hoof soup takes at least six hours to make. After the broth is done simmering and before serving, Zamora adds cabbage and wheels of zucchini, carrot and corn still on the cob. The soup is comfort food in a cup.

All the hard work is worth it to El Pulgarcito’s devoted regular customers. Zamora says many drive all the way from Grandview, where there’s a large Central American population, to get their Salvadoran fix.

Zamora says she’s counting on a boom in business next year, when Ikea opens its first Kansas City-area store just a few blocks away from El Pulgarcito, on the east side of Interstate 35 in Merriam.

Before Ikea opens, Zamora plans to expand El Pulgarcito’s liquor license. The restaurant serves Mexican and domestic bottles of beer, but she wants to add margaritas and mixed drinks to the menu. Zamora also wants to remodel the kitchen and expand the modest dining room, which has linoleum floors, booths and coral walls.

In the meantime, you can find the young restaurateur in El Pulgarcito’s kitchen, practicing her mom’s recipes until they’re perfect.