What does “authentic” mean? And pupusas!

I was still in love with El Cielito Lindo, but on my last day in Ataco I had to obey the part of my Traveler’s Creed that demands to try as many new things and places as possible, so when I found another pupuseria tucked into the porch/courtyard of a house on the other edge of town, I waited until their single table was free, then went in.


A typical pupuseria, this one in San Salvador

A typical pupuseria, this one in San Salvador

This place was a contrast to El Cielito. Instead of the solid wood furniture topped with a local burlap sack, they had the sort of one-piece plastic table-and-bench with a chipped yellow plastic top that you’d find in the bargain taqueria/burger/Chinese/kebab/noodle shop across from the bus station.


There was no menu, the large woman with the spatula just asked if I wanted cheese or pork, and the beverage options were coke or beer. She turned to the table opposite the grill, lifted a fly-speckled towel, and continued hacking apart a chicken for her family’s almuerzo. When she finished the bird, she reached down with shiny fingers and grabbed my coke.


An old dog slept under the grill, a toddler wandered around without pants on, and an older man was spreading grout with a trowel for the heavy paving stones stacked next to my table.


This place wouldn’t make it into the guidebooks.


Ataco streetBut the people who’d been at the table before me were pure Salvadoreños, two men on their way home who leaned their well-worn machetes against the wall while they ate. Cielito had enough tables to accommodate an entire busload of visitors, while this place had one table next to the grill.


It was scrupulously clean (other than the salmonella) and without any detail or decoration that might smack of deliberate “Salvadoranness”. Suddenly the burlap tablecloths in El Cielito looked a tad contrived. Still local, still recycled/repurposed, and still aesthetically pleasing, but contrived.


“Authentic” is a problematic word. We all go looking for it, but what does it mean? The horchata I had at Cielito is a traditional drink of this area, specific to the region, and beloved of the populace…who normally drink coke.


So which drink is more “authentic”?

Hint: if the menu has "typical Salvadoran food" on it, for $11 (when the table-groaning load of food in the first pic was $2.50) it's probably not authentic

Hint: if the menu has “typical Salvadoran food” on it, for $11 (when the table-groaning load of food in the first pic was $2.50) it’s probably not authentic


Cielito’s ample menu of options was impressive, and spanned a variety of ingredients that are absolutely used every day by Salvadoran people…but most places offer the Big Three, only. Which is more authentic?


The good thing, the bad thing, the entertaining and eternally interesting thing, is that it’s up to every individual to decide, every individual time they do any individual act. One day, Cielito’s wide breadth of native ingredients might sing true, while the next, only a familiar three-option pupuseria will do.


Where would you like to eat tonight?