By Jessie Knadler
“Some people think our food is Mexican,” says Gloria Gerber of the eponymous Gloria’s Pupuseria, a teeny tiny, cheerful Salvadoran café on North Central Avenue in Staunton. “They say, ‘You don’t have tacos? You don’t have quesadillas?’ I’m like—no.”
A pupusa is El Salvador’s national dish. Gloria grew up making them at her mom’s pupuseria in her native country where a pupusa sells for 60 cents.
“I was always helping my mom in the kitchen because I was the oldest,” says Gloria, who runs the Staunton café with her husband John Gerber.
A pupusa is not unlike a taco (Mexico) or an arepa (Colombia, Venezuela) in that it’s quintessential street food delivered via a masa (corn flour) tortilla. But unlike its equally unpretentious cousins, pupusa dough is rolled by hand and enclosed with a combination of beef, chicken, beans, vegetables and cheese that is then pressed flat like a pancake and griddled. It’s paired with a zippy cabbage relish called curtido (not to be confused with cole slaw) that Gloria and John make with habanero and without. Salsita para pusas or chili verde hot sauce is drizzled on top. Order it with fried plantains served with crema. The finished meal is so fresh and satisfying, you might think you’ll be able to eat a whole stack of pupusas like a stack of pancakes. Don’t try. They’re deceptively filling.
“The trick is that all the ingredients have to be evenly distributed throughout the pupusa,” says Gloria. Flavors come through in each bite. Other popular menu items include the Salvadoran enchilada—shredded chicken on a fresh tostada topped with a lime-dressed salad, queso duro, hard boiled egg (the egg actually comes from John’s family farm), avocado then slathered in hot sauce.
Gloria and John got their start at Staunton’s Saturday farmers’ market. The pupusa concept quickly caught on with shoppers—it’s like a taco! Only … not!—and soon the couple was selling 200 of them every Saturday.
Eventually, John and Gloria migrated to a food truck, the Shangrai La of nimble 21st century cookery. “It was nice to have a permanent kitchen,” says John. They traveled up and down the Valley for events and set up every Friday night at Redbeard Brewing Company in Staunton. “We give them a lot of credit for helping us grow,” he says.
But here’s what nobody mentions about food trucks: they tend to sit idle during the off season. “During those months we struggled,” says John. “And people were always calling us, where are you? I wanted to have a little space in Staunton where people could find us all year long.”
So they bit the bullet and moved into a permanent kitchen with seating – aka a legit café – on North Central. The space was formerly occupied by Mike Lund of Lundch. John counts Lund, as well as Ian Boden of the Shack as mentors. “They’ve been big supporters since pretty much day one and have always been there for advice when we need it.”
Gloria’s Pupuseria is catty corner—separated by an exquisite sea of concrete otherwise known as the Howard Johnson parking lot—to Chicano Boy Taco, another It Staunton eatery. The two restaurants together give the industrial neighborhood a hit of culinary cache.
The pupuseria is only 100 square feet and snuggly sits 12 so quarters are cramped. The upside to all this closeness is that customers are able to watch Gloria work her magic rolling out masa dough at the plancha, a flat top griddle. “Customers really like that,” says John. “They can say hi, they can talk to her. It really is an art, what she does.”
The downside is that the café gets very crowded very fast. Gloria mentions a particular family of four that comes in to eat every week. Sometimes the only space available for them is along the narrow bar with only three stools available. So the poor dad will often stand. “We don’t want that,” says Gloria. “We want people to come sit down and enjoy the food, to feel welcome. That touches my heart.”
After careful deliberation, John and Gloria have decided to expand again, this time into the space formerly occupied by a Caribbean restaurant right next door.
“I’m nervous,” says Gloria. “But people like our food. They’ve been following us from the start. We want to serve them. It’s time to grow.”
They still serve at the Saturday farmers’ market. (Their breakfast pupusas have become very popular.) “This community has been really good to us, very supportive,” says John. “We’re very grateful for that. The Saturday market still feels like home base for us.”
John and Gloria aim to re-open in the newly expanded space by late November. They’ll have a beer and wine license, to boot. Valley pupusa-philes will be waiting.