By: Courtney Melvin
Pelham Parkway hosts many unassuming buildings along its humble route. La Libertad seems to follow the rules of modesty, sitting on the edge of an unremarkable mall near the Guns!Guns!Guns! and Treasure Thrift stores. Yet the lack of exterior extravagance is not what initially prevented me from visiting the quaint Salvadoran restaurant. The reviews were great. Only a few comments warned of rude employees who had no patience for someone as potentially uneducated in Salvadoran food pronunciation as myself. Honestly, I feared the humiliation of trying to order from the menu. In my head, I replayed a scene in which I mispronounced menu items, and the staff scoffed at my ignorance. I’ll admit, I’m too prideful (or awkward) to put myself into embarrassing situations on purpose, as delicious as the picture-and-description-ridden menu looked when I googled it.
Regardless of any self-preserving instincts, my husband and I finally decided to stop by the restaurant on a Sunday after visiting a nearby gardening shop. Neither of us knew what to expect, but we were ravenous from walking around in the sticky sun. We entered into a sedated atmosphere. There was no hustle-and-bustle clinking of forks or swinging of the kitchen door. Instead, a room of mostly empty tables and two bored-looking waitresses greeted us. The one closest to the entrance smiled and gestured for us to sit wherever we’d like. Televisions played the “Noticias” news channel in the adjoining room where we chose a table.
Despite the minimal remarks I’d read about employee rudeness, our waitress was charming right from the start. She laughed when I said, “I don’t know what I’m doing, so I’m just going to wing it.” From the list of six beers, we each ordered a Corona with lime (because what’s the point without lime), and we picked Pastelitos de Pollo from the appetizer choices. It was the first item on the list, and, as I said, we were winging it.
While waiting for our appetizer, we snacked on stale tortilla chips and salsa. The salsa’s mild, sweet balance kept me from caring that the chips probably should have been retired a couple of days before they were served to us. We ate them until there were only crumbs, our crunching amplified by the absence of music playing. The only other sounds were those of the low-volume news channel, the hushed conversation of a couple in the corner, and the obnoxious uproar of a table full of preteen girls and their parents speaking with suburban condescension to their waitress.
Glancing around, I noticed quirks about the minimally decorated space. Hanging from the plain, white paneled wall to my right, an empty frame hung with just the words “picture frame” showing through its window. Another wall projected the taxidermied head of a deer, seemingly watching the patrons as they ate. In the back, near the restrooms, soccer jerseys dangled for sale from bars in a makeshift market space. We talked about these facets the way a couple might discuss another couple’s living room style choices. We said things like, “Huh. That’s interesting. I wonder why they put that there.” These offbeat traits held our attention until our first round of food was presented.
Pastelitos de Pollo resembled the fried pies that you’d buy from a carnival stand in the fall. Stuffed with warm chicken and vegetables, the orange Salvadoran empanadas set a luscious precedent for the rest of the meal. Along with serving the appetizer, our waitress plopped a plastic container half full of bright pink slaw and a small set of tongs onto the table. She smiled at our confusion and asked for our order.
My husband ordered pupusas, a word he’d never said until then. The waitress asked a series of questions involving cheese, chicken, and pork, but my husband mostly nodded and told her to choose what she thought sounded good. I ordered the Tradicional Salvadoreno, to which our thoughtful waitress replied, “No. No. You want avocado. Order the Carne Casamiendo. Still steak, but you get avocado.” She knew better than I did, so I agreed.
One Pupusa de Queso and one Taco de Pollo Pupusa were delivered to the table. The corn flour pockets, stuffed with cheese and one of them topped with chicken, cilantro, onions, and tomatoes immediately caused me to regret my order. Luckily, my husband allowed me a few bites. Garnished with pink table slaw, the flavorful, cheesy crunch with its slight bite stamped a permanent place on my future cravings list.
Carne Casamiendo restored my faith in my ordering abilities or, rather, the waitress’s ordering abilities. A plate of thin, cooked-just-right steak that I could have cut with a butter knife laid surrounded by a mixture of beans, bright yellow rice, sliced, fried plantains, and one half of a ripe avocado. Each item was so well seasoned that I over-ate within a moment of first seeing the plate. With only a third of my food eaten, I requested a to-go box. This was actually a feat, considering I usually have the propensity to eat all day long. My husband even asked if I was joking, commenting that he’s never actually seen me get full.
By the end of our afternoon date, we’d devoured four beers total, chips and salsa, an appetizer, and two big meals for only a bit over thirty dollars, but we would have paid more. Any place where diners discuss out-of-place soccer jerseys beneath the eyes of a deer head tends to linger in the memory. Even with incredible food and an arguably patient and helpful serving staff, these niche places survive based on customer loyalty. That clientele allegiance often sparks from the effortless but sincere way in which a restaurant says, “I don’t have to impress you, but I will.” La Libertad conveys and transcends that notion.