A Not-Quite-Restaurant Faces the New Reality – The New York Times

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The restaurants of New York City have gone dark. But what of the not-quite-restaurants: the in-betweens with just a few wobbly chairs, the lunch counters that hedge bets by selling groceries alongside hot food, the tiny spots whose very grasp at existence is a daily improvisation?

On Monday, Mirna Elisabeth Marroquin and Lorenzo Garcia were watching the news, waiting to learn if the pupuseria they own and run in Flatbush, Brooklyn, would have to close. As of 8 p.m., all restaurants in the tristate area would be limited to takeout and delivery, to help halt the spread of the coronavirus — but did Mirna’s Pupuseria count as a restaurant?

The triangular corner storefront, half a mile from the last stop on the No. 5 train, was once an insurance agent’s office, then a coffee shop. When Ms. Marroquin and Mr. Garcia took over the space last August, they imagined it as partly a store. Shelves on the back wall stock Salvadoran groceries: brined pacaya palm flowers, their bumpy strands like skinny tentacles; semita de piña, pastry with a secret cache of pineapple jam; pale bricks of queso duro blando, a hard cheese that’s eerily light and ready to crumble.

There are a few tables, but no servers. Orders are placed at the cash register, next to a stash of Mentos mints and bottles of cough syrup.

Ms. Marroquin grew up in the ancient Mesoamerican city of Chalchuapa in western El Salvador; pupusas are her birthright. She and Mr. Garcia, an immigrant from Mexico, met and married in New York. To make a living, she cleaned houses and he worked in construction.

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When friends dropped by, she made them pupusas, of course, and they started jokingly calling her home Mirna’s Pupuseria. Now that name belongs to this storefront on Flatbush Avenue, two blocks from where she and Mr. Garcia live, and far from the gentrified neighborhoods whose bars were still drawing reckless crowds last weekend.

The pupusas — savory cakes of masa harina, fine corn flour that Ms. Marroquin mixes with nothing more than cold water — are soft and thick, their curves comfortingly inexact, patted into shape by hand. Patches of bronze testify to crisping on the comal. Break off a corner and the cheese inside oozes and stretches, refusing to let go.

These are breakfast, lunch, dinner and all-day snacks. The cheese alone is rich enough: mozzarella, milky queso fresco and queso duro with its lode of salt, anchored by heavy cream. Green flecks announce the presence of loroco, a flowering vine whose unopened buds are deployed as a chive-like herb, only milder.

Other pupusas come filled with inky refried beans and chicharrón — not cracklings but pork shoulder, anointed with orange juice and browned in a pan, then pulverized with tomatoes, onions and green bell peppers and returned to the stove to darken further.

Swap in rice flour, whisked with boiling water, for masa harina and the resulting pupusas are crispier and spongier, airy lunar disks quicker to char.

No pupusa is complete without a tuft of curtido, a bracing slaw of cabbage and carrots blanched and tumbled in vinegar and salt. Giant jars of it are kept in the cold case, with fistfuls prepackaged in plastic bags for takeout. It’s traditional to add a daub of gentle salsa roja, but I like the fiercer, full-force crush of chile de arbol, barely tempered with tomato.

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Credit…Winnie Au for The New York Times
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Credit…Winnie Au for The New York Times

Each morning begins with the staff — Ms. Marroquin, her husband and two of her nieces — scrubbing down the entire storefront. They make chorizo, lacing the pork sausages with achiote, and prepare tamales for steaming: savory ones with the masa velvety from chicken broth and close to custard, wrapped in plantain leaves; and sweet, buttery ones inside corn husks.

Some days, quesadillas are stacked by the cash register — shallow cakes, maybe an inch high, dense with cheese. You taste sugar, then salt, then sugar again, each yielding the stage to the other.

Mirna’s Pupuseria is but one of the hundreds of small neighborhood spots that quietly sustain our city’s daily life. Often relying on the labor of a single family, they have little defense against the ravages of fate, and appear and disappear without fanfare, mourned only by those privileged to have known them.

Come Tuesday morning, the kitchen was in action, making orders for pickup and delivery. But Mr. Garcia wondered if it would be worth keeping the place going during the shutdown. “We cannot be open for eight hours and make only $20,” he said. “We have expenses.”

He was worried about the virus, too. “If it’s going to be safe for my family, we will stay open,” he said. “If not, we’ll close.”

Mirna’s Pupuseria 1350 Flatbush Avenue (East 26th Street), Flatbush, Brooklyn; 347-730-9001; brooklynpupusas.com

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Source: Thanks https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/dining/mirnas-pupuseria-brooklyn-pupusas.html