Risa was up early (7:45 is a sleep in to most people, but this required the use of an alarm and loads of willpower) to meet some friends of hers. Logistically it was too much for me to join them what with us leaving Melbourne this morning. Anyway, it gave her a chance to catch up with her Japanese friend in Japanese without feeling guilty about me not really understanding the conversation.
Our next move requires a little explanation, so bear with me for a couple of sentences. I have a few El Salvadorian friends and I have heard them talking about their parent’s and grandparent’s cooking, especially a dish called pupusas. I’d tried a couple of times to try and invite myself around to eat with them, but hadn’t had any luck. We generally don’t watch much terrestrial TV, but we happened to catch an SBS show called Destination Flavour that visited an El Salvadorian restaurant in Melbourne. I wasn’t paying much attention until they showed a happy El Salvadorian lady making pupusas using her own recipe that she brought here with her. Again, I probably wouldn’t take much notice of it, but since I knew that we were about to leave on a trip around Australia, including a visit to Melbourne, I watched and anticipated a visit to her restaurant.
That restaurant is Los Latinos, a very unassuming restaurant in Melbourne’s Western suburbs. It’s the kind of place that not a lot of people would accidentally come across, especially not tourists. The interior was clean and pleasant, but other than some (beautiful) photos of El Salvador, it was quite spartan – no frills decor. We received our menus and started with some El Salvadorian drinks – Horchata (spicy/nutty milk drink, which we later learnt is different to the Spanish/Mexican version of Horchata) and Kolashampan (soft drink mildly reminiscent of creaming soda). There was a respectable beer list, with beers from El Salvador and other Central/South American countries, and if I wasn’t already tired (and a long drive ahead of us) I would have bought one or two.
After all the eating we’d been doing recently, I wasn’t actually that hungry, and since we’re going to my father’s place tonight, I knew he’d also have a feast waiting for us so I shouldn’t eat too much… but, there were so many things on the menu that I wanted to try. Of course we were going to try her famous pupusas, and I left it to her which fillings we’d receive (refried beans, jalapeños, pork). We also grabbed some deep fried cassava chips with pork (I didn’t take a photo of the menu and can’t find it online, so I don’t remember the name…). There were loads of other entrée-sized things to try, but Risa opted for pescado del mercado central (roasted ‘baby’ snapper, stuffed with prawns and avocados).
The fried cassava ‘chips’ came out first, and they were like nothing I’d had before. So much more flavour and texture than regular potato chips. Combined with the spicy sauce, pickled onion and chunks of pork, it was absolutely delicious.
I’ll be honest, it was a little bit of a wait for the pupusas to come out, and I got a little excited when she came out with a plate, only to find it bound for another table. But, before too long, and just as I was starting to get hungry after the fried cassava, there were four stuffed tortilla-shaped being delivered to our table. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I was quite surprised by it. Much more subtle than Mexican food (or least the Mexican we get in Australia), not so much over-powering spices, more delicate outer pastry, and soft, delicate cheese mixed with the different fillings (pork, jalapenos, refried beans). Actually, it was the beans one that was the odd one out, and I didn’t notice it until Risa pointed out how similar it was to the Japanese red bean desert, anko. We started sharing them, but by the end, Risa was only getting little more than a bite.
As I was finishing the last of the pupusas, Risa’s main came out. The menu described it as baby snapper, but this was no baby fish! Sure, I guess they can’t catch fish under a certain size, but it was WAY bigger than we were anticipating. Risa struggled for a few seconds with a knife and fork, then gave up and went and got chopsticks from our van (I too think that chopsticks make certain food easier to eat, I just wouldn’t have the courage to go out and bring my own in to an El Salvadorian restaurant). The fish was awesome, really tender and juicy flesh, and really crispy skin. I can tell you that there wasn’t a single speck of edible meat left on that fish when Risa was finished with it.
We ended up being the last customers in the restaurant, and started talking with the owner, Lillian (I think my camera caught her eye). It was great chatting about her food, and about our travels, wish we could have had more time, but it was getting late and we had to get moving. It’s not in the most convenient place for most people in Melbourne, but I think it’s really worth a visit, especially if you can come as group to really be able to try all the different items on the menu.
It was a blast up the highway to my Dad’s place in Tocumwal, which sits on the New South Wales side of the Murray River (which is the divider between NSW and Victoria). We didn’t realise at the time, but the massive detour around Shepparton was due to a light plane crash that happened on the highway in town. We went for a very quick walk around town (of course stopping by the giant Murray Cod) and were amazed at how many koalas we found (and even more amazed that they were awake and active!).
It’s been a while since I’ve been to visit dad in Tocumwal, and the first time for Risa. Dad was full of energy and stories, so it was a late (and delicious) dinner. I did my best to eat as much of his cooking as I could, but after four days of doing little more than socialising over food, my appetite has taken a hit.