There’s a long-running misconception about Salvadoran food that the only thing they’re known for is pupusas. And while this national dish is arguably the most popular food in El Salvador — especially when it comes to a cheap snack — they have far more to offer.
During our time in the country, we’ve had the opportunity to try a huge variety of different foods. Some of the best food in El Salvador ranges from unique takes on neighbouring cuisines to traditional dishes of their own. So we’re here to share with you some of the best El Salvador food has to offer, and where you can find it!
Cuisine of El Salvador
Salvadoran cuisine is often misrepresented by many as underwhelming. While this may be true when compared to other regional heavy hitters – notably Mexico – the cuisine of El Salvador is by no means bland. Given the country’s history, they simply haven’t had the luxury of being able to focus on expanding their culinary scene. Limited crops and resources have kept options rather limited.
That said, their creative use of common staples such as corn, beans, plantains and cheese has brought about some incredibly delicious dishes. Just don’t forget that while travelling El Salvador, you’ll be eating much more than just pupusas!
For the sake of this post, we’re focusing on the more traditional aspects of Salvadoran food. Though it should be noted that the culinary scene in El Salvador these days is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Young chefs, a new generation from the age of the internet, who grew up in the post-war era, are rapidly changing the face of Salvadoran cuisine.
Many chefs have trained internationally and are putting new and creative cooking techniques to local ingredients from around the country. So keep this in mind, for your first (or next) visit to El Salvador. The food scene is changing. And while this list showcases the vastness of the country’s food, it’s only a stepping stone for what is beginning across the country.
Salvadoran Food: The Staples
I know I said that there is much more to Salvadoran cuisine than pupusas, but they are one of the greatest foods of all time. Pupusas are essentially El Salvador’s answer to dumplings — though I hesitate to even make that comparison.
A simple corn or rice-flour dough is stuffed with a selection of fillings, and flattened into a disc. The pupusa is then fried on a griddle until crisp on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside. They’re served with a pickled slaw called curtido, and a splash of juicy tomato sauce.
Fillings include all kinds of combinations of meat, seafood or vegetables, and almost always cheese. Though most commonly you’ll find them with beans, chicharron or cheese — or the combination of all three known as revueltas.
Where to Find | Everywhere, starting in the mid-afternoon and throughout the evening. Sometimes you’ll find them for breakfast on weekends. Every city, village or town, and even randomly at times along the highway; you’ll find a pupseria selling these classic snacks.
Tamales are one of the most famous dishes in Latin America, though they can vary significantly from country to country.
In El Salvador, they’re a fairly standard style, featuring a masa, or cornflour, dough filled with a meat, usually chicken or pork. The whole mixture is wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed for several hours until the filling forms a soft yet dense loaf (for lack of a better word).
As for ingredients, El Salvador has some of the most complex flavours when it comes to their fillings. While tamales are typically fairly simple, it’s a much different story here. While the masa dough and meat remains the same as elsewhere, the Salvadoran style also includes boiled eggs, roasted sweet red peppers, chickpeas, tangy capers and salty olives.
Simply peel open the banana leaf, drizzle with some hot sauce or other salsa, and you’ll be set for hours.
Where to Find | Not as common as pupusas, but they’re fairly common at street stalls throughout the day. As well, people often sell them on chicken buses.
Yuca con Chicharron
Though we first tried this incredible “salad” (sometimes known as vigoron) in Nicaragua, it seems to be more common in El Salvador.
Yuca con chicharron is literally that: yuca, a starchy root vegetable, and chicharron, fried pork belly with tasty bits of crispy skin. The yuca is either boiled or fried, topped with the pork, and served with the same curtido that accompanies pupusas.
It’s almost always served at room temperature, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as a salad. Either way, it’s one of our favourite foods from the region, so much so that we have our own recipe!
Where to Find | The best place to have yuca con chicharron is in Chalchuapa, near Santa Ana. After the Tazumal ruins, this place is famous for their yuca.
I’m including this on the list because it is a Salvadoran favourite. Many people we spoke to rave about tortas. Though as much as we tried to feel the same (we tried more than we would have liked), we aren’t fans.
Much like the tortas we fell in love with in Mexico, these are essentially a hot sandwich. However, that’s where the comparison ends.
In El Salvador, a typical hoagie bun is sliced open and filled with a grilled wiener, a paste-like meat patty of some sort, lettuce, onions, and too much mayo and ketchup. The whole thing is then fried on a griddle until everything (lettuce and sauces included) are heated through.
They’re not awful, but they aren’t that good either.
Where to Find | You’ll usually encounter stalls selling tortas in city centres or central parks. They’re typically less than $2 a piece.
Breakfast throughout Central America changes very little, at least when it comes to the classic option. Desayuno typicos, literally ‘typical breakfast,’ is a carb and starch-heavy way to prepare you for a long day of exploration or straighten you out after a long night of Cadejo.
Aside from subtle differences from place to place, typical breakfast in El Salvador includes the following: Roasted, sweet plantain; beans, pureed or not; rice; a wedge of fresh, salty cheese; eggs, usually scrambled; and for some reason far too many white buns than is necessary. Also, freshly squeezed juice, strong coffee, and a bottle of hot sauce.
Where to Find | Everywhere that is open for breakfast will have some version of this.
Literally “Crazy Corn,” this street snack, beloved by locals, is one of the strangest things we encountered in El Salvador.
Boiled or grilled corn on the cob is slathered in mayonnaise, sprinkled with salty cheese, and drizzled with ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, and Worcestershire sauce (salsa Iglesia).
It’s an overwhelming combination of contrasting flavours and textures that left us feeling equally disappointed and confused.
Much like the torta mentioned earlier, this isn’t something I expect to be craving any time soon.
Where to Find | Street carts in bigger cities often sell Elote Loco.
Loroco is a vine with edible flowers that have a very potent and distinct flavour. The plant grows native in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, but is used almost exclusively in Salvadoran cooking.
The taste of the flower is difficult to describe. Much like truffles, their flavour is unique, in the sense that it can’t be compared to, or replaced with another ingredient.
My poor attempt at describing the taste would be that it’s both pungent and floral. It’s most commonly used as a filling for pupusas (along with the obligatory cheese). We’ve also encountered it as the base for a pesto to top grilled meat or toss with pasta, as well as the buds sprinkled on top of a pizza.
Where to Find | Most pupusa shops will have loroco as an option.
Fried Plantains, Potatoes and Yuca
One of the most common and inexpensive snacks you’ll find in El Salvador are these simple, fried starches. Whether you’re riding a local bus or wandering the streets of a city or town, you’ll encounter someone selling these crispy, deep-fried snacks.
Sometimes they’re cut into strips or chunks, other times they’re shredded or spiralled and twisted onto a stick. But they are always plentiful, dirt cheap, and probably very bad for your blood pressure.
They’re typically served with a splash of hot sauce and a squeeze of lime. Sometimes mayo or ketchup will also be on hand. Either way, if you need a quick and cheap snack in a hurry, this is a safe bet.
Where to Find | On buses, at bus stations and in the streets. Wherever people are gathering and need a quick bite to eat, you’ll find carts selling fried stuff.
El Salvador Food: The Meats
Common throughout the region, a typical lunch or supper will involve rice, fried plantain, and grilled meat. The selection differs from place to place, usually beef, chicken or pork, that’s pounded thin and grilled over coals.
This is far from steakhouse-quality bbq, so don’t expect filet mignon, but some of our tastiest meals were these simple grills. What makes these so great, aside from the price, is that a lot of the meat is completely free-run, so the meat itself is loaded with flavour.
Where to Find | Everywhere. Almost any small, local restaurant will have some version of this on their menu. Or just follow your nose in the evening towards the smell of fat dripping over hot charcoal.
We first encountered this incredibly delicious sausage during our time at the Juayua Food Festival. As a speciality of the western part of El Salvador, specifically the Ruta de Flores, it’s difficult to find elsewhere in the country. However, you’ll probably be going there anyway, so no worries!
This spicy snack is, in essence, a fusion of two classic Spanish sausages: Chorizo and Longaniza. While I won’t bore you with the differences between the two, just understand that chorilonza truly captures the best aspects of each. From the finely minced pork to the just-spicy-enough heat, it’s simply a perfectly crafted sausage.
Where to Find | The weekly food festival in Juayua, on the Ruta de las Flores. Or ask around at street stalls and restaurants specializing in local cuisine.
A lot of people get scared off by strange meats like iguana, but there’s nothing to be concerned about. It’s just meat. This is another one that is a little trickier to find, although if you know where to look, it’s worth the trip.
We were introduced to it while in San Salvador, a local friend took us to his favourite iguana soup restaurant.
And you know what? It tastes like chicken!
Not really. It’s more akin to snake, frog, or alligator. Then again, to compare those to anything more common, it would be like a soft, greasy chicken.
Where to Find | Restaurant Sopon Zacamil San Salvador, or at the Nahuizalco night market on the Ruta de las Flores.
Though not as common as chicken, rabbit, or conejo in Spanish, is found in many spots around the country. Similar to thigh and leg meat of poultry, but with a more delicate texture and a deeper flavour. Given the option, I’ll take rabbit almost every time.
Unlike in French cuisine, where the meat is often stewed, conejo in El Salvador is most often found roasted or grilled.
Where to Find | To save the trouble of asking around at different restaurants, the best place to find conjeo is at the Juayua Food Festival.
Soup of El Salvador
Sopa de Gallinas India
Don’t let the name fool you, there’s no curry to be found here. The India in question refers to indigenous, or in this case, wild. And this soup is essentially a potent chicken soup made with wild rooster.
And this is our favourite soup in the whole country.
Sopa de Gallinas india is common across El Salvador. Unlike regular chicken soup, it’s typically served only on weekends, because wild roosters simply aren’t as common as regular hens.
A tasty chicken broth is filled with potatoes and vegetables. The chicken’s legs, thighs and breast is grilled separately and served on the side with a plate of rice.
Where to Find | Most soup restaurants will offer this on weekends. Though if you want to try our favourite, head to Sopa de Mondongo in San Miguel. This is more than a simple soup, it’s a complete meal.
Sopa de Pata (Cow Foot Soup)
This is literally how it sounds. It’s a hearty beef broth so rich with gelatine that it coats your mouth like a properly-reduced demi-glace. Floating in this magical broth is a large chunk of cow hoof, with tendons, tripe and meat floating alongside.
Update: It was brought to my attention recently from a native Salvadoran that this soup can also be made with pigs foot.
Clearly, it’s understandable why this isn’t widely talked about with foreigners, but it’s one of the tastiest soups we tried during our visits. It also makes a great stepping stone for some of the stranger delicacies you’ll encounter while in El Salvador.
Where to Find | Not as common as other soups, it’s not always served in regular restaurants. We tried it at the same restaurant as the iguana mentioned above.
Several countries in Latin America have their own version of mondongo, the powerful hangover-curing soup. Even Romania, on the other side of the world (curiously, also a country with a Latin-based language), has their own version of this magical soup.
Now, not to scare you away from trying it, but the ingredient in question is tripe: the stomach lining of a cow. And I get it, it’s not for everyone, but if you’re brave enough to give it a go, it’s really quite tasty.
The Salvadoran version has several other key ingredients like cartilage, tendon, and other nasty bits, as Anthony Bourdain lovingly referred to them. Throw in some corn and potatoes, and this incredibly rich broth is a truly delicious treat.
Where to Find | Sopa de Mondongo, in San Miguel. We fell absolutely in love with both of their specialties.
Delicious Seafood of El Salvador
Another aspect of the food of El Salvador that is often overlooked is one that should almost be obvious. Given the ratio of coastline to landmass in this tiny nation, fresh seafood is easy to access – though understandably most common along the coast – and is of impeccable quality.
Like many of the best seafood preparations around the globe, the seafood here is simple and rarely messed with. Fish, squid and giant prawns are typically cleaned and cooked whole, either grilled or fried. They’re often served with lime, a simple garlic-heavy sauce, curtido or fresh vegetables, rice and grilled tortillas.
Similar to the grilled meat, this is an option you’ll encounter all along the coast. Every day, fishermen bring in their catch that is quickly distributed around the country. Local restaurants buy up the cheaper fish and put it on their daily menus.
The fish is gutted and scaled before being seasoned and tossed, completely whole, into a pan of hot oil. The result is a perfectly crispy exterior and a juicy flesh inside.
This is one of my favourite things to eat in El Salvador. And the only real downside is that you have to be careful eating around all the tiny bones.
Where to Find | Although you can get fish across the country, it’s always best eating on the coast where it’s freshest.
Even our adventurous palates had trouble giving this one a try, but we’re glad we did. Black clams are named as such due to the black, brine found in their shells.
The clams are served raw, much like oysters, with garnishes like chopped shallot and tomato. You simply squeeze a bit of lime juice over the clam and a dash of hot sauce and slurp it back. The lime serves two purposes here, one for taste, but the other to ensure the clam is still alive. If it doesn’t wiggle when the acid touches it, it’s dead. Never eat dead shellfish raw.
Where to Find | Many restaurants have clams on the menu, though we’d suggest getting them from a reputable location, preferably near the coast. The La Libertad fish market or the main market in San Salvador are both great options.
Cocteles & Ceviche
These two seafood snacks have a very distinct difference. Cocteles are typically shrimp or other cooked seafood, tossed in a mixture of mayo, ketchup, chili sauce and onions. Imagine the classic shrimp cocktail, only everything is mixed together.
Ceviche, on the other hand, is raw fish, clams, conch or prawns that are “cooked” with acid, typically lime juice, and then mixed with fresh shallots and other ingredients.
The issue in El Salvador is that the lines between them are blurred. And that regardless of what it says on the menu, it seems to be a combination of the two.
Almost always, it will be a tart blend of ketchup and lime with chopped onions. Sometimes the prawns are cooked first, other times they’re cooked like traditional ceviche. Mayo tends to be involved completely at random.
Regardless, this ended up being one of our favourite snacks in El Salvador.
Where to Find | Most restaurants along the coast or bigger cities inland will have cocteles and/or ceviche on offer.
Seasonal Salvadoran Specialties
These are two treats we unfortunately missed out on due to the timing of our visit. But that can only mean one thing: we’ll be back!
One of the only things we didn’t get to try during our visit is the tenquique mushroom. Often referred to locally as the Salvadoran truffle, this seasonal mushroom has its own very distinct taste.
It’s wildly popular when in season, and can be found in everything from pupusas to high-end restaurants. If you get a chance to try it, please let us know what you think!
Where to Find | We found a Pupuseria called Cielito Lindo along the Ruta de las Flores that served tenquique pupusas. Unfortunately for us, they ran out just before we arrived.
Panes con Pavo
This is one of those seasonal specialties that we missed out on during our visit; only just. Like in many other countries, Salvadorans celebrate Christmas with roast turkey. However, this isn’t your grandmother’s turkey.
Unless you’re Salvadoran, then this is probably your grandmother’s turkey.
The turkey is marinated and roasted in a sauce of tomato, garlic, chilis and a complex blend of seeds and spices. After cooking, the meat is shredded and stirred back into the sauce, before being placed in a large sandwich bun. The turkey sandwich is topped with a little more sauce, some lettuce, shaved radishes, and curtido.
Where to Find | Around the Christmas season, roadside carts and restaurants will feature Pavo con panes. If you’re feeling confident, the spice blend is sold at local markets around the same time of year. Give it a try yourself!
Desserts of El Salvador
Pastel de Platano
In a cuisine dominated by plantains, beans, cheese and corn; desserts weren’t something we expected to encounter too often. Thankfully, while staying with some locals in San Salvador, we were treated to a rather splendid – and surprisingly inexpensive – sampling of food. They ordered from a local place called Tipicos Margoth, and aside from the wonderful sauces, tamales and variety of pupusas, it was the dessert that caught our attention.
Utilizing those same four staple ingredients mentioned above and a bit of cream and sugar, Pastel de Platano is unlike any dessert we’ve ever tried. Layers of naturally sweet, roasted plantains with a sweetened corn dough and fried beans, it was absolutely delicious!
Where to Find | We aren’t entirely sure if this is a treat specific to this restaurant or a dessert available throughout the country. Either way, if you find yourself in San Salvador, give it a shot!
No, we’re not talking about the cheese-stuffed tortilla from Mexico, this Salvadoran specialty is actually a dessert.
The quesadilla is similar in taste and texture to a pound cake. But the key difference here is that there is a salty cheese, similar to Parmesan, that’s mixed with the dough. Crazy right?
This salty-sweet cake, sometimes topped with sesame seeds, is the perfect pairing with a rich Salvadoran coffee or a hot chocolate. You need this in your life right now.
Where to Find | Everywhere. From coffee shops and restaurants to chicken buses and the check-out counter at corner stores.
El Salvador Drinks
Salvadoran Craft Beer
Alright, so this isn’t exactly a traditional Salvadoran food, but the emerging craft beer scene in El Salvador is definitely worth checking out.
One of the biggest producers in the country right now is Cadejo. It produces high-quality brews that are comparable to some of the best we’ve tasted anywhere in the States or Canada.
I’ve also included this on the list as a reminder of how things are changing in El Salvador. When something of a luxury like craft beer is popping up in a country so recently ravaged by war and hardship, it’s a huge sign that the country is moving beyond their tragic past.
Where to Find | Most supermarkets sell in bottles, but for the real experience, visit the breweries. Cadejo is found in the Zona Rosa neighbourhood of San Salvador as well as just outside El Tunco. Sivar can be found in Santa Tecla, just outside San Salvador.
Horchata is a beverage that has an interesting depth of flavour that is also quite refreshing. With its origins reaching back to the Mediterranean many centuries ago, horchata exists in many incarnations. Even in the new world, recipes for this sweet, spiced beverage vary significantly from country to country.
In El Salvador, nutrient-rich jicaro seeds (also known as morro) are used as the base. The ground seeds are mixed with cacao, cinnamon, and coriander seed before being blended with milk or water, vanilla and sugar.
Horchata is typically served over ice.
Where to Find | Many street stalls in cities will have large jugs of horchata on display.
We can’t have a post about the food of El Salvador without mentioning the incredible coffee.
While the small country might not export the numbers to compete with other world coffee producers, the quality is definitely on par. With its rich, volcanic soil, and hilly landscapes rolling into the coast, El Salvador grows some of the tastiest coffee in the world.
Tour a coffee plantation along the Ruta de las Flores for a literal fruit-to-cup experience and learn about the entire coffee production process.
Where to Find | Everywhere. From a quick strong cup in a small family-owned restaurant to a proper cold brew in a hip San Salvador cafe.
Ladlefuls of the steaming, milky-brown liquid are drawn from a bubbling cauldron and poured into cups. A hearty splash of local rum is swirled in before the cup is passed to you.
This little treat tastes like more of a Christmas drink, one that should be enjoyed while hiding indoors from winter on the Canadian Prairies; not something to be sipped in 30-degree heat. However, we found ourselves returning for seconds, thirds, fourths…
Typically found during celebrations or special occasions, this festive concoction goes down a little too easily. Ponche itself is a simple mixture of milk that’s been flavoured with cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg and vanilla.
Where to Find | From street carts in the evening, usually on weekends or during festivals.
Sugarcane has long been a major part of the Salvadoran economy. Though until recently, its production has often been for industrial use. Recently, a small distillery decided to try producing something a little more palatable.
Cihuatan Salvadoran rum is a high quality, low priced rum, that is starting to turn heads in the industry. They currently sell 8 and 12-year rums, as well as several special blends.
Unlike Kylee, I’m not much of a rum drinker, and even I enjoyed this stuff! Served over ice with a side of lime is the best way to indulge in this magnificent drink.
Where to Find | El Gringo Tours does a Rum tasting tour in San Salvador, but only periodically. You can also buy it at higher-end stores in bigger cities.
This is a general overview of the incredible cuisine of El Salvador, there is still so much more to discover. So whether you’re planning on visiting the country, or are just curious about that local Salvadoran restaurant in your hometown, you should be well-prepared to get out there and give it a try!