When Sonia Perez, her husband, and then 19-month-old daughter, Erica, left behind a family restaurant and all that they had known to move from conflict-ridden El Salvador to Pasadena in 1982, it was hard to find authentic Salvadoran food. Perhaps with the memory of home cooked pacaya rellena de queso (stuffed date palm with cheese) in mind, Perez thought, “I will have a restaurant in Pasadena one day.” The thought that never left Perez became reality in 1994 when La Caravana Restaurante, designed by Perez and built by her husband, opened. 17 years later, the family-owned establishment, which Perez’ husband, son, and Erica still help with, continues – year-round – to satisfy the appetites of first-timers and regulars that come from as far away as San Pedro.
Who wouldn’t brave Los Angeles traffic for the signature mini pupusa platter? 10 freshly hand made disks of thick corn tortillas, accompanied by the usual curtido (lightly fermented cabbage slaw with red chilies and vinegar) and tomato salsa, burst with your choice of flavorful fillings, including ayote, pollo, or jalapeno con queso (zucchini, chicken, or jalapeno with Monterey jack cheese, queso fresco, or queso codija), loca chicaron, frijoles, queso y loroco (crazy with pork meat, beans, cheese, and loroco flower), and more – all for $12.95. You can even request filling combinations that are not on the menu. The platter comfortably feeds two, with enough to bring home for tomorrow’s lunch, if you have self control.
“Regular pupusas are very big,” said the brown-haired, motherly Perez with a smile, her kind eyes lighting up as she talked about the inspiration behind the platter idea. “The most you can [eat at a time] is three.” At $2.75 a pop, why have one when you can try 10?
For dessert, enjoy the addictive, luxury version of a cream-filled doughnut – empanadas de platano de leche, three generous pieces of fried, slightly salty, crispy, sugar-dusted plaintains filled with a creamy rice flour, milk, cinnamon, and sugar mixture tinged with just the right amount of sweetness. You may have to restrain yourself from stopping by another day for some as a to-go snack. You can also order the savory version filled with beans, a common Salvadoran dish.
For a taste of a variety of fare, try the plato topico loco (crispy, chunky pork, plaintain, rice and beans, your choice of pupusa, sour cream, and cheese). On a cold day, order a steaming bowl of one of the generous-sized soups, like the sopa de res (beef with vegetables). Drink choices include ensalada (fruit cocktail drink), Salvadoran style horchata, Latin sodas, and freshly squeezed lemonade. Breakfast lovers will also find a home at La Caravana.
In fact, there’s a place for everyone at this warmly lit, tile-floored, home away from home, where brightly colored paintings – one with a bare backed woman – and fake mice (from chandeliers) hang. There are tables for small groups, a party room in the back that seats up to 40, and booths and tables for two in dimly lit corners for those that would like to savor their eats in private.
Far from where Perez grew up on a farm, two hours from the city of Suchitoto, El Salvador, where she used to walk as a little girl to visit relatives and buy food and other necessities, is the only La Caravana Restaurante. There is authentic Salvadoran food in Pasadena.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., Sun. 10am-9pm; Fri.-Sat. 10am-10pm
Price range: $2.50 (chicken tamale) to $13.95 (7 seafood soup)