Latino vendors ladle out sopa de pollo for the soul


THERE IS nothing quite as comforting as the familiar taste of home-cooked food when one is in an unfamiliar place. That's why Pupuseria el Dollar, the bright silver food truck parked in the Salvation Army parking lot, is so popular.

Three years ago Jose Turcios purchased a truck from which he and his family started selling dishes from his native El Salvador to the growing Latino population in Annapolis. His business was so successful that his sister Ana Hernandez and his mother, Maria Josepha, bought their own truck a year later with the intention of selling from a different location.

"He had lots of business, and who better to start another business than family?" Hernandez said.

Business has always been good. Even in the cold weather, customers are lining up to buy and take home their lunches and dinners.

But finding a location was not as easy as finding customers. They tried a number of places around Annapolis, each with its own problem.

A year ago, Hernandez and Turcios connected with Capt. Paul Egan at the Salvation Army, who helped solve their problem.

Egan agreed to let them operate from his organization's parking lot.

"It has turned out to be great for us," Egan says. "They are regular donors, but much more than that, they are a real asset to the community. They bridged a gap that we had in not being able to communicate our services to the Hispanic population."

Turcios and Hernandez operate their trucks there on different days, a convenient arrangement now that Turcios' has opened a restaurant, El Buen Saborlatino (Spanish for "the best Latin flavor") in Edgewater. Turcios' truck is at the Salvation Army parking lot just outside downtown on Hilltop Lane on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with his wife, Martha Turcios, often preparing food. Hernandez and Josepha serve food there Mondays through Thursdays.

Neither Hernandez nor Josepha had run her own business before, but they and other women in their family knew how to cook. And their food is what their customers come for.

Hernandez says many of their customers are men from Central America and Mexico, who are here to work and send money home to support their families. Because most of them are from homes where women traditionally cook, they don't know how to cook but want good, home-cooked food at an inexpensive price. They find it at Pupuseria el Dollar.

With its highly visible location and growing reputation among those familiar with Latin foods, an increasing number of American customers are stopping by to get some of a dozen or so items on the menu.

"I grew up in Southern California and have a Mexican stepmother. When I found this place, I knew I'd come home," says Annapolis resident Marc Boensel. "It's the only place I've found around here where they are the doing the real, authentic Latin American-style cooking. My wife and I go there at least once a week."

Annapolis resident Todd Nix has eaten there a couple of times. "I was struck by the fresh quality of the food and how nice the people are. They seem like a really nice family," he says.

Another Annapolitan, Nancy Wallace, spent two years in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and has ordered from the truck several times. "The food is great," she says. "The menu is the same and the food is just as good as any of the markets where I ate every day in Nicaragua."

Hernandez says the most popular items are the business' namesake, pupusas, which are thick corn tortillas filled with cheese and sometimes pork; "real" Mexican tacos; and carne asada (grilled steak). They also serve shrimp, fish, pork and chicken entrees, all of which are served with rice, beans and tortillas. Soups and a number of side dishes are also available.

Nothing on the menu costs more than $7.50. Most main dishes are $5 and sides are $1 or $2. Pupuseria el Dollar is open every day from noon to 9 p.m.

While waiting for their meals, many people visit the two vendors in the parking lot to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, spices and other products used in Latino cuisine.

At Jacobo Zayas' truck, one can find Mexican, Salvadoran, Brazilian, and Colombian sodas -- the only American one is Coca-Cola. There are also Mexican and Salvadorian sweet breads, snacks and an assortment of other products, including pinatas for children's parties.

"Customers ask for something and I get it for them," Zayas says.

Zayas came to the United States about eight years ago from Mexico and worked for a Spanish food wholesale distributor before starting his own business. At first he took his business to Annapolis only on weekends, but with a good location and a strong customer base, he is now there every day except Mondays.

Pupuseria el Dollar, El Buen Saborlatino and Zayas' market are part of a growing Latino food scene in the Annapolis area, where there are nearly a dozen "Mexican-style" restaurants and markets. Each has its own culinary or regional style that will appeal to different people.

With such a wide variety of restaurants and ingredients available, why not get out and try them all? What better way to compare foods, learn more about the cultures and find the inspiration to try new recipes at home?

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