In Dining

The former Romo's Silver City Sports Bar is slated to become Pupuseria Los Angeles. (PHOTO: Lori Fredrich)

Pupuseria Los Angeles will bring a taste of El Salvador to Silver City

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For years El Salvador, 2316 S. 6th St., has been the sole source of Salvadoran cuisine in Milwaukee. But that's likely to change thanks to a new restaurant planned for the corner of 36th and National Ave.

The restaurant, which will be called Pupuseria Los Angeles, will be located at 3530 W. National Ave. in the former home of Romo's Silver City Sports Bar. It's just a few doors down from Orenda Cafe, one of the newest additions to the growing Silver City neighborhood.

Behind the new pupuseria, which could open as soon as early 2020, is a compelling story of emigration, hard work, generosity and a desire to showcase the cuisine of a culture which is largely underrepresented in Milwaukee.

From El Salvador to Milwaukee

Owner Maria de Los Angeles Monge Almendarez (known more widely as Maria Monge) was born and raised in Chalatenango, a town located in the northeastern portion of El Salvador along the Honduran border. The mountainous area, which was hit hard during the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s remains among the top five most impoverished areas in El Salvador.

When Monge was just 15 years old, her mother emigrated to the U.S. to escape the political unrest, leaving her responsible for raising her younger siblings. To subsist, Monge says she made money cooking food and selling it out of her home.

"Everyone in my family sold food out of their homes to make money," she recalls. "My grandmother would wake me up early in the morning so that I could begin cooking. It was very difficult, but I'm grateful to her for everything that she taught me."

Over the years, as Monge Almanderez struggled to make ends meet, she met with a variety of challenges, including the loss of two of her siblings. She also entered into what would eventually become an abusive marriage. In 1996, Monge made the decision to leave her life in El Salvador behind and emigrate to the U.S.

When she arrived, she had very little. But she located her mother, who sponsored her application for U.S. citizenship.

From there, she landed a position working as an assistant teacher for HeadStart. She also pursued coursework at MATC, UWM, the Wisconsin Women's Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC) and the Multicultural Entrepreneurship Institute, where she earned her bartender's license and ServSafe certification. Along the way, she met her husband, Jose, who supported her in her plans to establish a local restaurant.

For years, she says, she searched for a brick and mortar location for her business. But her budget was tight, so she decided instead to launch a food truck, which would assist her in building funds and introducing her cooking to potential customers. In 2016, she debuted Cielito Salvadoreño, a food truck specializing in El Salvador's national dish, the papusa.

She ran the operation seasonally, with the help of her sons, Brian and Joell Aguirre, serving 14 types of pupusas including pollo (chicken), revueltas (cheese, beans and pork), queso (cheese), queso y frijol (cheese and beans) and loroco, a popular offering stuffed with the nutty, vegetal flower buds of the South American loroco vine.

Pupuseria Los Angeles

Even as she operated her food truck, Monge continued to search, with the help of the Layton Boulevard West Neighbors, for a location on the South Side to open her restaurant.

"For four years I've been working with Celia [Benton] to find a location in the neighborhood," she says. "And in May of this year, she connected me with Ryan [Pattee]."

Pattee, president of Pattee Group LLC, has invested significant funds in the rehabilitation of numerous South Side communities, including the Clarke Square and Silver City Neighborhoods. He'd purchased the former sports bar and had plans to renovate both the first floor retail space and residential apartments above.

Monge says she worked with him to negotiate a lease for the first floor, which she will remodel with a combination of loans and grant money from the City of Milwaukee.

"There is a lack of representation of Salvadoran culture in Milwaukee," she says, noting that she plans to introduce a brightly colored space filled with a variety of Salvadoran items, including woven mantles on the tables. "When people walk in, we want them to feel like they are in El Salvador."

And, although there's still work to be done on the interior of the restaurant, she says the mural painted on the side of the building (a collaboration between Pattee, Wallpapered City and Mue Bon and Byada, two street artists from Thailand) was one of the first steps they took to create a welcoming environment.

"In the middle is an owl (because my mom loves owls)," explains Aguirre. "And each little colored square contains a flag from a Latin American country. It represents the idea of everyone coming together in unity."

As for the name, Monge says she originally planned to call it Pupuseria la Chalateca in homage to the Salvadoran state where she was born and raised. But in the end, she says, she decided to opt for a name that more people would be able to pronounce: Pupuseria Los Angeles, an homage to both her middle name and her love for angels.

The menu

As you might expect, pupusas will be the staple at Pupuseria Los Angeles. In fact, Monge says she expects there to be over 20 varieties on the menu including options featuring chicken, pork, cheese, beans, loroco, calabaza (squash) and spinach.

"We want to have something for everyone," notes Aguirre, "So we will offer vegan, vegetarian and meat options."

Breakfast options will include dishes like platano frito, a combination of sweet plantains (sliced lengthwise and fried) served alongside beans and scrambled eggs with a choice of cheese or crema and handmade tortillas or bread. There will also be huevos divorciados, featuring fried eggs with a combination of both green and red sauces.

Appetizers will include traditional banana leaf-wrapped tamales filled with two types of masa, green peppers, potatoes and a choice of chicken or pork; yucca con chicharron (fried pork and yucca served with curtido); and pastelitos, small empanada-like turnovers made with masa and filled with a choice of meat or vegetables.

Lunch and dinner entrees will include carne guisada, seasoned steak served with rice, chimol (a tomato-based condiment made with tomatoes, lemon and cilantro) and handmade tortillas; sopa de pollo and sopa de res, soups made with either chicken or steak along with myriad vegetables including green bananas, zucchini and corn.

During the winter months, the restaurant will also serve seasonal items like panes rellenos, a popular Salvadoran sandwich featuring tender cooked chicken, boiled egg, potatoes and a variety of vegetables including lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, beets and cucumbers topped with a seasoned tomato sauce.

On the beverage side, there will be a variety of bottled beers (including domestic and both Salvadoran and Latin American imports) along with a variety of traditional drinks. Among them will be Salvadoran horchata de morra, a beverage made with ground morro seeds (instead of rice) blended with cinnamon, peanuts and water; cebada, a pink-hued drink made with barley seeds and sugar; and fresco de chan, a sweet KoolAid based beverage with chia seeds.

There will also be ensalada de fruta, a drink made with small pieces of chopped mango, apples and pineapple, mixed with water and a bit of sugar.

Monge says that she'll use a combination of ingredients purchased locally, including produce from area farmers markets, as well as ingredients she and her family members bring back from El Salvador on their visits.

"I am excited," she says, noting that she would very much like to honor her late brother by opening on his birthday, January 13. She pauses and looks over at her son, who returns her glance with a smile.

"Right when we were closing the truck and signing the lease, she began second-guessing herself," says Aguirre. "But my dad and I had to push her and motivate her… because this has always been her dream."

PHOTO: Maria Monge with her son, Brian Aguirre.

Pupusa Fest: Doing good with food

Since her childhood, Monge has used food as a means to assist others.

In the years after first arriving in the U.S., while awaiting her approval for citizenship, she says she looked forward to the day she could return to El Salvador to assist her community. In fact, when her citizenship was approved, she began taking trips back to Chalatenango every year.

"People there are still struggling to get by," she says. "And even though my situation was bad, there are people who have it worse. And I'm very fortunate and happy to be here with my family."

In 2017, Monge Almanderez hosted her first Pupusa Fest, an event dedicated to celebrating Salvadoran culture. The event, which included food from the Cielito Salvadoreño Food Truck and various activities, was small but successful, raising $1,000 which she used to create sustaining baskets of staples (including beans, rice and sugar) for her community in El Savador.

This year's Pupusa Fest will be held on Nov. 9 at the Montessori Institute of Milwaukee. You can watch the Cielito Salvadoreño Food Truck Facebook page for details.


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