La Cabana Pupuseria y Restaurante
Address: 848 Merivale Rd, Ottawa, ON
Hours: 12:00pm – 9:00pm (M), closed (Tue), 12:00pm – 9:00pm (Wed-Sun)
Located just off Carling, in an unassuming strip mall that it inhabits along with a South Asian grocery, La Cabana (and the Latin American grocery it shares space with) is a place I’ve passed by many times, but never visited. However, this all changed when I needed to make a “fun” trip to the Service Ontario office at nearby Westgate Mall, and as one does (or at least I do) when out of their typical territory, I looked for interesting places to grab a bite at.
Coming from the east coast where authentic Latin American places are very few and far between, a Salvadoran restaurant specializing in pupusas (thick tortillas filled with meat, cheese and/or beans) and other Latin American fare definitely counts as interesting. I arrived shortly before 1pm, and being located where they are, there was no big lunch rush like more centrally located places, although there were a couple other occupied tables and several other people passed through during my meal.
With the restaurant being somewhat quiet, I selfishly grabbed a booth by the window and began plotting out my feast. The menu is hefty, with so many enticing choices that barring a complete failure on the food, it begs for another visit. My eyes worked their way through the various sections – breakfast (served until 3pm: bonus!), pupusas, appetizers, house special mains, soups, grilled items, and seafood. While a breakfast of chorizo, eggs, queso, and refried beans was extremely tempting, I wanted to sample a broader spectrum of La Cabana’s offerings. There is a wide selection of pupusas due to the option of masa harina or rice flour for the base, and six different types of fillings; I went with one of each starch, and fillings of pork, and pork with cheese ($3 each). To make it a full-on gluttonous indulgence, I got an order of chorizo tacos ($10), and tacked on a chicken tamale ($2.75). I was intrigued by a sign advertising their atol de elote – a corn drink, served hot, and spiced with cinnamon ($4). With winter’s cold making one last hurrah in April, I eagerly indulged.
The pupusas arrived first, with everything else in a steady stream thereafter. Served with a hefty jar of curtido (a spicy cabbage slaw that is somewhere in between coleslaw and kimchi), and a pourable bottle of salsa roja, the unassuming tortillas/flat dumplings had a lot of supporting flavours at the ready. In the end though, I loved them as they were. I always enjoy the flavour of anything masa harina that’s grilled, and the pork and cheese pupusa had wonderful bits of crisp cheese on the exterior, as well as moist, flavourful, shredded pork inside. The condiments added a spicy kick, but you could easily enjoy the pupusas on their own.
Moving on to my next meat and carb item, the corn tortillas of my tacos were generously filled with red chunks of chorizo, which had extra flavour from their own time browning on the grill. The tacos were topped with tomato, onion, and cilantro; I appreciated the light hand with the cilantro and either mild form of onion, or a rinsing that pared back their bite, as the chorizo really had a stage to shine on. I would have liked more time on the grill for the corn tortilla’s own flavour to come out more, and a double wrap for increased taco structural integrity, but you can’t win ‘em all, I guess.
Folks, we have to talk about the atol de elote – and how god damn good it was. It’s simple enough conceptually, but you still don’t really know what to expect. I like corn products, including somewhat goopy forms like polenta, but a full-on drink? The first sip from the round bowl (I was given a spoon, so I’m not sure if that was the more acceptable way to drink it, but whatever, I’m half Chinese so it’s kosher by us) had the telltale flavour of corn, and of course the cinnamon, and was delicious in its simplicity. It wasn’t thick at all, and only developed a slight film on top as it cooled while I battled my way through my massive meal.
I ended up taking my chicken tamale home, as well as an order of two empanadas de leche to share with my wife. I re-heated the empanadas in the oven, so they should have turned out reasonably in line with how they would at the restaurant. They didn’t have the filling of dulce de leche that I expected, but rather a caramelized glaze, and a slightly dense, but soft and pleasantly doughy interior. They were good, but not churro good. I didn’t end up having the tamale until a couple nights later and reheated it in the microwave, so it shall be exempted here.
With food like they have, I can see why there was a steady stream of Spanish-speaking customers to both the grocery and the restaurant on a weekday afternoon. La Cabana is putting out some excellent food at incredibly good prices. Just don’t order quite as much as I did, or you’ll be guaranteed to need a siesta.