Pupusas are an undisputed staple in the DC area, now nearly as easy to find in Langley Park, Mount Pleasant, and Wheaton as pizza and burgers. But Salvadoran cuisine goes deeper than the pupusa: Sweet, starchy nuegados con chilate. Cream-filled plantain empanadas dusted with sugar. Sesame-speckled quesadillas (cheese-enriched pound cakes that bear no resemblance to the Mexican food of the same name).
Then, there are the many Salvi sandwiches, which can be a little harder to find. San Salvador has its torta Hula Hula and pan con chumpe, but in the eastern departments of San Miguel, La Union, and Usulután, where many DC-area Salvadorans are from, the pan con pollo is king. Chicken, fried or stewed, is nestled into a fluffy French roll with a salad’s worth of sliced vegetable toppings including, almost always, watercress. It’s rare to find places outside of El Salvador that offer pan con pollo, but a few DMV eateries serve renditions that are worthy contenders for the city’s top tier of chicken sandwiches. Here’s where to find two of the best panes con pollo in town:
The Silver Spring veteran serves what some consider DC’s “archetypal pupusa,” but it’s also notable for its encyclopedic selection of Salvadoran goods and dishes, spanning far beyond the griddled masa cake. Here, you can pick up ripe papayas and plantains, sample from an extensive plant-based menu, and try less-common desserts like ayote en dulce (squash cooked in brown sugar). Then there’s the pan con pollo. If you try just one Salvadoran sandwich, make it La Casita’s version. Bite-sized pieces of chicken are marinated in a blend of spices, worcestershire sauce, and mustard for 24 hours, then braised with potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and herbs for three more hours. The stew is then tucked into a flaky sandwich roll—from the Salvadoran-owned French Bread Factory in Sterling—and topped with a kitchen-sink of garnishes: thinly sliced hard-boiled egg, mayo-and-mustard slaw, beets, tomatoes, crisp cucumber and radish, and that sprig of watercress. It’s tough to know how to tackle actually eating one, says Jaime Arbaiza, La Casita’s director of operations. “In El Salvador, you literally would not eat a pan con pollo like a sandwich,” he says. “You’d pick at it with a fork.” Arbaiza says the restaurant calls its sandwich a “pan de pollo” (chicken bread) rather than the more common “pan con pollo” (bread with chicken) because the chicken filling is so substantial. It’s been on La Casita’s menu since it opened more than 20 years ago on Piney Branch Road. “I understand if people want to just get pupusa, I respect it,” Arbaiza says. “But at the same time, we want to show people that there’s a little more to Salvadoran cuisine.”
5509 Landover Rd., Hyattsville; 12210 Veirs Mill Rd., Silver Spring
Named for a town in Usulután, the new Wheaton branch of this snack shop—opened in June— turns out specialty items like coctel de curiles, a cold seafood plate made with Central American black clams, and the thin mortadella sandwich called the pan mataniños, popular with university students in El Salvador. Unlike La Casita’s pan de pollo, Santa Elena’s sandwich is truly a pan con pollo: an entire bone-in chicken leg, fried to a crisp, is served on the side of the sandwich. To eat it, rip pieces from the thigh and drumstick and tuck them into the bread, which comes dressed up with a hardboiled egg, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, and slaw. The bread is less remarkable—a bit more chewy and soft—than La Casita’s, but the chicken is pleasantly oily and salty, and homemade pickled cauliflower provides a zing. The real star of the places’ pan con pollo is the sauce that comes on the side: recaudo, a warm, brothy tomato salsa perfect for dipping, or slathering onto the sandwich.