It would take you 80 hours of driving down the Pan-American Highway, through the drug-fueled border towns of Texas, the smog of Mexico City, past the black mole of Oaxaca and smiling women hawking garnachas and gauraches, beyond Aztec corn, steaming mugs of atole, and the land of the Zapatistas, until you arrived to the tropical home of the pupusas.
Strangely enough, you could describe a similar experience on your way through North Chuck to Ladson, where you’ll find the Centro Americano Restaurante, a small grocery market with an attached kitchen and dining in the back and a distinctively Southern take on Latin American cuisine. They exist on the edge, past the taco trucks of Ashley Phosphate and Remount Road, beyond the Sunday lamb barbacoa and steaming bowls of menudo at Los Parados, worlds beyond the gentrified el pastor one finds these days at La Norteña, butted right up against the backside of the human spectacle of junk, live chickens, and ripe produce that is the Exchange Grounds on a bustling Saturday morning.
So thorough is the façade that they’ve taken to hanging a sign out front, lest their Mexican compadres not notice the excellent tacos and tortas hiding inside, but most come for rice and beans, a half dozen beers you’ve never heard of, and hot steaming piles of pupusas.
The grocery out front could exist in any roadside outpost of Central America. Ten pound bags of red beans compete with dried chilies and Mexican chocolate for shelf space. But the row of coolers splayed down the wall holds the real jewels — buckets of fresh, real lard, the kind that tastes like a pig roast, and a half dozen different soft and crumbling cheeses representing at least five nationalistic styles of origin. In other words, if you’re missing that authentic taste of Managua and can’t seem to find the right place for your provisions, the wait is over.
Or you could just walk straight through the store and get that authentic flavor with none of the toil.
With various flags of Central America lining the walls, the melamine booths are nothing to write home about, but the effort is authentic. Hispanic kids in soccer uniforms chatter in dialect, workmen line the little bar in the back, the kitchen bustles within, and plates ringed with fried plantains flow like water from the swinging door.
On Sunday you can get the selection of caldos (soups, $9-$12) in beef, chicken, shrimp, and clam flavors. Various other plates offer the region’s specialty foods, from beef in salsa to shredded pork. There is the “Bandeja Campesina,” or “Country Spread” ($11), a delicious pile of pulled beef, rice, beans, and plantains, topped with a fried egg. You can get a fried tilapia with those rice and beans ($9) or spicy shrimp (yes, with rice and beans) ($9). Ask for the “hot sauce” and you’ll get a homemade jug of hot vinegar, full of onions, chilies, and garlic with a communal spoon.
We go for the pupusas, which must be God’s intended purpose for corn meal, meat, bacon, and cheese. In fact how these things never made it into the staple Southern (as in Redneck Southern) diet I’ll never know. Layers of puffy soft corn meal (think corn pone) surround a melting center of shredded meat and cheese. I usually order pork, but they offer beef and chicken as well. One has to think that the protein wouldn’t really matter. The magic is in the crust; that soft masa patty, fried and rolled in the lard from pork rinds, produces a thin crackling shell, waiting to release the warm, oozing innards of corn and cheese and meat. It makes a hushpuppy look lame and a barbecue plate sparse. It’s one of the world’s great street foods, and Centro Americano does it right.
Centro Americano serves Mexican food as well. They have a grand selection of tacos and tortas, filled with beef tongue and pastor. But this is a place where you can get yucca covered in crispy pork rind, where they serve a sweet cashew drink and a smoothie called “die dreaming.” It’s a family-run place where four or five people will wait on your table in one visit, and you can’t possibly order off the menu without someone getting a plate of rice and beans. It’s the only place I know of in South Carolina that actually serves Central American food the way you might eat food in Central America — and while it’s not the best gordita I’ve ever tasted, it makes for a fine lunch on the way home from the Ladson Market.