Pupuseria La Macarena Uptown
8120 Hampson St
New Orleans, LA 70118
Napoleon's Rating - **/*****
Even if you've never eaten a pupusa or knowingly visited a Salvadoran restaurant, you should recognize the fundamentals at La Macarena. It's all about tortillas and refried beans, mellow cheese and flavorful meats. The pupusa, the marquee dish here, is just a somewhat different presentation than we're accustomed to at Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants. The appeal is similar, and La Macarena proves an accessible, well-executed family restaurant to explore Central American cuisine.
This restaurant has moved several times in its short history, and the current locations seems like the best fit. Painted in bright, upbeat colors, the tiny restaurant grabs the eye and its Central American food really stands out among the many other restaurants in the Riverbend area. Lots of people from the nearby universities eat here during the day, while in the evening you'll find more couples and some adventurous families. The puny dining room can feel cramped when it's busy, though there are a few sidewalk tables for more elbowroom. Solo diners will find a small counter top with bar stools. It would be difficult to seat more than six people together here.
The waiters go all out, though the place can still sometimes get away from them. It seems too small to have more than one person working the floor, but when the rush is on it can seem frantic and service can bog down. Catch the place at the right pace, however, and the waiter will carefully explain the menu highlights, using food photos on the wall to illustrate the staples.
Any meal at La Macarena should include pupusas, and the first course is as good a place to try them as any. These are flat, thin but hearty disks of cornmeal, like small, savory pancakes, filled with a mix of beans, bits of pork and white cheese and cooked on the griddle. Some are vegetarian and others are made with shrimp. It's normal to get three to an order, which would make its own meal along with a few sides. Or you can split this order as an appetizer. Fried yucca with chicharron is a bit disappointing, with the yucca too thick and dry and the chicharron (fried pig skin) teeth-cracking stiff. I like the extremely fresh-tasting shrimp ceviche better, and the brothy black bean soup is another good choice. Salads are substantial and interesting.
Pupusas turn up on their own and as components of combo platters, alongside flautas, enchiladas or tamales. It turns out that Salvadoran enchiladas look just like Mexican tostadas, with beef, avocado, boiled egg and grated farmer's cheese balancing atop round, crisp tortillas. The carne mechada, a pot roast, was lacking flavor but the carne asada is a great dish. The steak is cut like fajitas and proves especially moist and tender, with smoky, charred edges. The same can be said for the grilled chicken, stained yellow with abundant seasoning and marinade. A lot of the principal dishes reappear for weekend brunch, along with some Latin American breakfast dishes like fat, mildly sweet tamales and burritos with plantains and eggs.
Central American standards fit the bill for desserts, with the flan and tres leches cake each holding their own.
There's no bar here, but the restaurant allows BYOB and does not charge corkage. Try the colorful and very refreshing iced teas, especially the blackberry or passion fruit teas.
This place has some special charms to set it apart, but it also is significantly more expensive than its peers. Entrees priced between $14 and $19 are easily twice as much as comparative dishes at other places, and portions, while satisfying, are not tremendous. Weekday lunch specials are more reasonable, with most under $10.
La Macarena is a good cut above the typical taqueria or pupuseria in quality and presentation, and it is the most accessible place of this type for people new to Central American cuisine. It's a colorful, festive place in a bustling part of town and a good spot for hearty food that is a little out of the ordinary.