June 14-20, 2006

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First Bite

Hot Tamales

By Gabe Meline

Pupusas! They're such a staple in El Salvador that there is a national holiday, Dia Nacional de la Pupusa, to celebrate the most delicious thing you've never yet tasted. I first discovered pupusas in Los Angeles' Echo Park, and I have been praying to the Salvadoran gods above that one day, just maybe, pupusas would arrive in my backyard. Last month, that day finally came. Tucked in the corner of a forgotten strip mall, next to a late-night massage parlor, way out on Santa Rosa Avenue, is Sonoma County's first pupuseria, Hot Tamales, where absolute nirvana on a plate can be yours for $2.39 a throw.

If you've been eating burritos every day for the last 10 years, it's time to try a pupusa. It's a simple combination going back nearly 3,000 years. The basic pupusa consists of a thick, grilled masa tortilla filled with queso, carnitas, beans and squash (and, at your discretion, a vine flower bud called loroco). Hot Tamales serves pupusas with its own curtido, a type of pickled-cabbage slaw with sliced red peppers and mint leaves, as well as a special salsa made with fresh orange juice.

It might sound crazy, but the flavors are unreal, and the mushy goodness is the closest thing to a mouth-hug you'll find. Already abundant in San Francisco's Mission District, pupuserias are poised to quickly multiply throughout the North Bay in the next year. At Roseland's Cinco de Mayo celebration this year, there were over 40 people waiting in line at the pupusa booth, and everyone who tried them asked the same thing: Where can I get more of these?

Hot Tamales is owned by a friendly half-Mexican, half-Salvadoran family, and the menu includes the usual burritos, tacos and tostadas. I'm sure the Mexican dishes are all well and good, but after numerous visits, I have witnessed only plates of pupusas coming out of the kitchen and into customers' mouths. In an ambassadorial spirit, Hot Tamales offers free delivery, and its doors are graciously open until 10pm. So, go ahead. Induce the obsession and thank the gods above.

Hot Tamales, 3020-F Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa. Open 10am to 10pm every day. Dine in or take out; free delivery. 707.568.1241.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.