Pupuseria La Familiar: Where Salvadoran Flavors Unite a Diverse Community
Updated: Oct 2
Written by: Zach Wandalowski 🇵🇭
Zach Wandalowski and staff at Pupuseria La Familiar on Baltimore Ave on Sept.30, 2023. (Jessica Nguyen)
Through the bustle of traffic on Route 1, the rush of students going to and from classes, and the towering apartment complexes, it would be easy to miss Pupuseria La Familiar.
Yet, nestled in a shopping center often eclipsed by the neighboring McDonalds and student bar located across the street, lies a gathering place for all types of people in College Park – students returning from late-night study sessions, construction workers on their lunch break, white businessmen in dress shirts and large Latino families who file in after church and enjoy the Sunday special of sopa de gallina.
Under the dim lights, the orange-painted walls and the broken cumbia beat of “Como te Voy a Olvidar,” people that seemingly have nothing in common are connected through the cheap and delicious Salvadoran food served up at La Pupuseria Familiar.
Opened up in 2007 by owner Raquel Hernandez, Pupuseria La Familiar has become a staple in College Park, bringing Salvadoran food not only to the masses of students from UMD, but to the greater community in the area.
A small country of nearly 6.4 million people located on the Pacific coast of Central America, El Salvador cuts an outsized figure in the DMV metro area. The Washington D.C. metro area is home to nearly 300,000 Salvadorans, the only area in the country in which Salvadoran-Americans make up a majority of the Latino population.
Despite the large numbers of Salvadorans in surrounding neighborhoods, College Park lacked its own Salvadoran restaurant accessible to the thousands of students and community members in College Park. The cuisine is unique, combining elements of indigenous and European cooking in its use of seafood and pork, as well as the corn, beans, yuca and plantains that grow in the region.
As we sat down, Raquel ordered us a Salvadoran horchata, its signature flavor coming from its use of ground morro seeds, and an ensalada de frutas, a refreshing drink that combines apple, pineapple, mango, and melon juice and is adorned with finely-chopped fruit that floats on the surface.
“When we first started, there weren’t many Latino restaurants in College Park. The rent was cheap here, it was a good opportunity for an immigrant-run business,” Raquel tells us.
Food has always played an essential role in Raquel’s life. Growing up in the region of Cuscatlán, El Salvador, Raquel cut her teeth from a young age working in her mom’s pupuseria.
After immigrating to the U.S. in 1997, she and her family had worked in another pupuseria, saving money, before opening up their own restaurant here 16 years ago.
As we spoke, dishes began rolling in and filling the table. We began with the humble pupusa, sold both in restaurants and on the street, which is the national food of El Salvador. A thick tortilla hecho a mano, it is made of either corn or rice flour masa and stuffed with an assortment of fillings like cheese, beans, vegetables, meat, “or really with anything,” as Raquel tells us. “The mix of flavors with the melted cheese–the people love it. And we love it.”
The most popular are the pupusas revueltas: a hearty mix of cheese, beans and pork. However, we opted for the more underrated Salvadoran pupusa fillings such as mora, a spinach-like leafy green and pescadita, pleasantly-pungent anchovies shipped directly from El Salvador. And you can’t forget, loroco, the versatile Central American flower bud that is “very Salvadoran” and used for everything. Though described to have a flavor between broccoli and squash, Raquel says any description doesn’t do it justice – you just have to try it yourself.
The pupusas are topped with a runny tomato salsa and cabbage and carrot slaw, called curtido.
Despite the debates from some of our fellow staff writers and editors, our waitress, Breidy, tells us that pupusas are meant to be eaten by hand, though many still enjoy eating them with utensils.
Though pupusas are the most popular at La Familiar, Raquel reminds us to not forget about other Salvi classics such as the churrasco familiar, a filling plate of beef, chicken and shrimp accompanied by pico de gallo, Salvadoran fresh cheese and tortillas. And you can’t forget about the pan con gallina submarine sandwich, served on French bread and stuffed with chicken on a bed of pickled escabeche vegetables, watercress and sliced egg, among other fillings.
Sopa de gallina y tortillas a Sunday special at Pupuseria La Familiar on Oct.1, 2023. ( Zach Wandalowski)
We ordered the pastelitos, a deep-fried Salvadoran-style turnover filled with either ground beef or chicken, as well as the tamal de gallina. Wrapped in a banana leaf, the mild and effortlessly light tamale is unique from its regional counterparts in its filling of shredded chicken, potatoes, olives and chickpeas, topped with a tomato sauce.
For dessert, we were recommended the empanadas, though in El Salvador, these refer not to the savory turnovers, but instead to sweet, fried plantains, stuffed with either milk-based cream pudding or mashed, sweetened beans. As a plantain enthusiast, this dish has quickly become a favorite of mine and a go-to order for me.
The restaurant appealed to curious students like me, lured in by the proximity to campus and the affordability of the food – most pupusas run less than $3. The novelty of trying a new cuisine was a much-needed respite from the often monotonous campus dining food. We felt welcomed by the relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere and food that was reminiscent of a home-cooked meal, despite me and my friends not being Salvadoran. It was a judgment-free zone where we could practice our Spanish and ask questions about a country we didn’t previously know much about, but were now deeply invested in due to our interest in the cuisine.
The swiftness of the closing of Campus Villages Shopping Center caught much of the community and Raquel by surprise. According to Raquel, “they told us last year [about the closing], but we thought it was going to be next year or the beginning of 2024. It has been a very short time that they have given us to leave.”
Though many of the other restaurants are closing sooner, Pupuseria La Familiar is scheduled to close the last week of October. Community members can support the restaurant by visiting it in its remaining time in College Park.
Despite not having concrete plans for a new location yet, Raquel is confident that the business will be able to move forward, potentially in the same area.
Pupuseria La Familar’s chapter in College Park isn’t guaranteed to come to a close, but nevertheless, Raquel feels secure in the legacy and impact the restaurant has brought to the community.
“We’re thankful,” Raquel tells us. “[It’s] very special–this location and the local community.”
The restaurant has put El Salvador and its unique cuisine on the map for the University of Maryland and College Park. Through her restaurant, Raquel has brought a little piece of her home in El Salvador to our community. “Our customers aren’t only Latinos or Salvadorans,” Raquel says, “People from different cultures know about pupusas now because of us.”
Pupuseria La Familiar can be found at 8145 Baltimore Ave, College Park, MD 20740. They can be contacted at (301) 474-8484 or on their website at https://pupuserialafamiliar.com .