Country: El Salvador
Neighbourhood: Toronto – Core
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I was watching an episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix recently, an enjoyable but sometimes pretentious show. In this episode, the refreshingly unpretentious Chef Bo Songvisava discusses her mission to rescue Thai cuisine before it drowns in a sea of tourists. It’s a question many countries face – how do you balance building a global brand of cuisine while retaining a distinctive identity? I often ponder the same of agriculture. Globalization allows us to have 40 varieties of Peruvian potatoes in Canada, but how many more fall out of cultivation in Peru entirely?
El Salvador is one of the few countries we’ve covered where, colonial influences aside, its indigenous cuisine hasn’t yet faced the abstract brush strokes of regional and international chefs. The national dish, pupusa, is often traced to the Pipil tribe, which inhabited the region about 2000 years ago. Only in the 1940s did the pupusa begin its takeover of the country’s streets, spreading from the small towns settled near the Pipil’s stomping grounds. Pupusas are of such importance that Honduras and El Salvador actually fought for the right to its exclusivity during free trade negotiations. Honduras gave in 2 days later, ensuring history books will credit El Salvador for the rest of time.
Make note that the pupusa is just one of Salvadoran cuisine’s noteworthy dishes, but unfortunately Casamiento and other spots in the GTA haven’t expanded their offering too far beyond this staple. I’m going to need a Part 2 once I try some other Salvadoran specialties.
Casamiento is a Kensington Market success story, starting as a counter at the back of 214 Augusta. This cramped food court remains home to favourites like Pancho’s Bakery and Pico De Gallo, but Casamiento’s owner Rene realized he needed new digs to explore his full potential. When we stopped by the new location on Dupont, we couldn’t tell Rene had only been there since last August. The door was wide open, customers streamed in steadily and he expertly managed the lunchtime rush in casual streetwear. Just before us, a customer from a nearby business realized they had forgotten their wallet, and Rene nonchalantly offered to walk over later. I guess you can leave 214 Augusta, but 214 Augusta never really leaves you.
The only differences of note are the brand new signage and a modern, trimmed menu inside the store. Otherwise, efficient takeout is the name of the game, and flooring and wall decorations are on hold until the post-COVID world. Whether or not Rene gets to that, what was clear is that Rene alone livens up the place. He makes hard work look effortless, and cracks plenty of jokes while he’s at it. While I would totally visit just to chat for 5 minutes, I’m happy to report that the food is still the star of the show.
Enough teasing, let’s chat pupusas, or griddled corn cakes/flatbreads. They make up a third of the menu here (equalled by quesadillas and tacos), but are the undisputed golden jewels. We ordered four different types, corresponding to the fillings sandwiched between the two corn roundels. The cheese with loroco, vegan bean and cheese, and pork revuelta are on the regular menu, while jalapeño (and cheese) was the daily special.
Every pupuseria in El Salvador makes theirs a little different, and Casamiento clearly has their own style too. Here, the griddled corn cakes are quite thick and doughy, though the surface area manages to crisp up fairly well. I imagine this is just a folly of takeout, but the moisture from the cheese filling did permeate into the dough and affect the crunch.
The cheese with loroco is the blank slate of pupusas, and reflects the staying power of indigenous ingredients in modern cuisine. Loroco is the bud of a flower, trimmed before bloom from a herbaceous vine native to El Salvador and surrounding countries. Its simultaneously floral and earthy taste adds dimension to the white cheese, which was stretchy as hell but far less pronounced in taste. The magic is in the accompaniments – curtido and salsa roja. The curtido, or pickled cabbage, brings the crunch and liveliness that the base pupusa lacks, and turns a simple street food into a well balanced masterpiece. The thin salsa roja ensures you don’t get chunks of corn and cheese stuck in your throat, and adds depth.
Our favourite was the pork revuelta, stuffed with pulled pork and cheese. The pulled pork brought a really nice savoury punch, dotted with bits of onions and herbs. The vegan bean and cheese flowed like lava, with extremely melty Violife cheese that almost has a mild potato-y, starchy feel to it. That probably makes no sense, but try it and you’ll know what I mean.
We asked Rene what other Salvadoran dish to order off his menu and he suggested the beans and rice. Turns out Casamiento is actually the name of El Salvador’s primary beans and rice dish! The rice is cooked in the bean liquid with little bits of sweet onion, and packed a surprising amount of flavour. The plump beans are cooked perfectly al dente and went nicely with the salsa roja we drizzled on top.
We digested the maize-based feast with a Kolashanpan, a variation of a soft drink you’ll find across the Caribbean and Central America. It has absolutely nothing to do with champagne or cola, and instead tastes almost exactly like a cream soda. We aren’t complaining!
VERDICT: This is the kind of food you have a late night craving for, but Casamiento is not just fast food. Quality and freshness are priorities here.
UP NEXT: There’s more to this country than Rihanna (I love you though, Riri).
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