Nearly every time I’ve been to La Santaneca, a Salvadoran restaurant and bakery at 2461 Atlantic Ave., I’ve enlisted the help of a stranger to act as a translator since not everyone on the staff speaks English and my Spanish language skills leave much to be desired.
On the couple of occasions when I tried to go it alone, my terrible accent and lack of confidence led the La Santaneca employee to ask another customer to help out.
Thankfully, both the staff and the patrons of this little family hangout have been friendly and accommodating every time. And I keep returning because, well, the food is worth the effort.
My Spanish vocabulary is extremely limited, but I am able to get by with a few key words and phrases, including the necessary “please” and “thank you.” Most importantly, though, I know how to order pupusas.
There are a number of places in Long Beach to get pupusas, but La Santaneca is currently my favorite. If you’re familiar with Salvadoran cuisine, you know of the iconic dish: a thick, disk-shaped corn tortilla commonly stuffed with cheese, beans, pork or varying combinations of the three. It’s traditionally topped with curtido, a tangy slaw made of cabbage and carrots. These are so much a part of Salvadoran culture that the country has a National Pupusa Day each November.
La Santaneca’s pupusas are large — I can eat one and feel satisfied, but almost always spring for two. The tortillas — distinct from the tortillas that wrap burritos or tacos — are thick and fluffy, made from corn masa flour. The classic revuelta pupusas, filled with pork, cheese and beans, usually have small puddles of cheese stuck to their sides, made slightly crispy by the griddle. Yet La Santaneca’s pupusas are served without the greasiness that can be found in other restaurants’ pupusas. You’re able to taste the spectrum of textures — the pulling of the cheese, fluffiness of the bread, the snap of the curtido — all complemented by the griddle rather than weighed down by it.
Pupusas can be eaten as a snack, but they are usually not made quickly. That’s also the case at La Santaneca, where you can wait about 20 minutes for a small order of them. I suggest calling ahead — again, have your Spanish phrases or Spanish-speaking friend handy — to place an order so your pupusas are hot and ready when you arrive.
The restaurant also serves a selection of other Salvadoran dishes, all presented in a photo menu without labels above the cash register. In my aforementioned interactions with gracious volunteer translators, I was able to order chicken and vegetable soup with barbecue chicken, tortillas, rice and pureed beans — a hearty meal I wasn’t able to finish in one sitting. Also noteworthy are La Santaneca’s tamales, wrapped in plantain leaves with masa that is extremely moist, even gelatin-like.
La Santaneca fills up in the early evenings for dinnertime, making for a nice family atmosphere, but it’s worth mentioning — especially in this summer heat — that there is no air conditioning. You can, however, place orders for takeout over the phone or in-person. Even on a quick trip to pick up your food, it’s impossible to ignore the display case at the back of the restaurant filled with pan dulce and other baked goods. Adding one or three of the treats to your order only requires a bit of pointing and nodding — no translation needed.
For more information, visit http://la-santaneca-long-beach.sites.tablehero.com or call (562) 490-9860.