BY JUSTIN OSOFSKY
Tacos Lupita may be mere steps away from Anna’s Taqueria, Boca Grande, and the Wrap, but its food is a world apart. Located at 13 Elm Street in Somerville (a 5-10 minute walk from the Porter Square T), it is a hole-in-the-wall that offers wonderful, authentic Mexican and Salvadorian cuisine.
It takes little more than walking in the door to tell this isn’t a typical burrito chain. You might first notice the Latin American soccer games on one of the dining room TVs; soon after, there’s the sight of the friendly staff, making tortillas by hand, flipping steak cooking on the grill or watching pork slowly roasting on a spit.
The best item I’ve had at Tacos Lupita sounds quite ordinary: chicken soup ($6). It may sound simple, but this version hardly resembles the plain canned variety. Served in a large, Vietnamese-style bowl, this soup first touches the senses with the steam wafting from the yellow-orange broth. The broth is anything but bland, with a chicken stock base complemented by strong touches of cumin and other spices. To kick it up a notch, drop in the small dishes of salsa and hot sauce and give a generous squeeze of fresh lime juice. Tender chicken leg meat falls off the bone, and is supplemented by several substantial breast pieces. The supporting cast includes chunks of carrot, potato, cabbage and zucchini, as well as a few pieces of elbow macaroni. Two hot corn tortillas, perfect for dipping, are served on the side. But be careful: The restaurant only offers soup on Friday (chicken), Saturday (beef) and Sunday (tripe).
The core menu is composed of various combinations of four ingredients: tortillas (corn or flour), meat (steak, pork, tongue, sausage or chicken), vegetables and cheese. The taco ($1.25) is the simplest combination, offering a choice of meat inside two homemade corn tortillas, served with a salsa of onion, cilantro, and tomato and green (mild) or red (hotter) salsa. The burrito ($4) switches to a flour tortilla and adds bean and rice.
For gorditas ($3), the burrito ingredients are stuffed with cheese into a corn tortilla. This dish stands out more because the corn tortilla provides a sharper contrast in texture with the interior fillings. The only tortilla/filling combination to avoid is the mulitas ($3) which are less interesting (only meat and cheese) and tend to be greasy. Those who prefer fillings to tortillas should opt for the combination plate of chicken, pork, steak, rice and beans (the most expensive item on the menu at $8).
To truly experience Tacos Lupita, move beyond the comfort zone of the tortilla and filling offerings. On the Salvadoran side, the pupusas ($1.25) are a griddle-fried combination of corn tortillas, pork and cheese about three inches in diameter and a quarter-inch thick. These are topped with a (pink!) pickled cabbage and jalapeno mixture and a spicy red sauce. Their texture is fascinating – smooth creaminess from the corn meal and cheese mixes with the crispness of the cabbage. The flavor explodes in your mouth – a bit too literally if you stumble into a couple of jalapeno slices. Tacos Lupita also offers a chicken tamale ($1.50) that is far more interesting than its often bland counterparts in Harvard Square.
The restaurant’s staff is extremely accommodating, but expect to wait a few minutes as they make each dish to order in a small kitchen. Beverages are non-alcoholic, and range from the usual sodas to unusual fruit juices. While the décor could definitely be improved, it’s no different than comparable haunts. Tacos Lupita may be slightly off the beaten path, but it offers an authenticity and value that is hard to find in the area.