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El Palenque Cantina

August 02, 2009

El Palenque Cantina Restaurant is a storefront at 204 E. Franklin St. in Hagerstown. Finding it was worth the effort of figuring out the maze of one way streets downtown. Half bar, half restaurant, El Palenque Cantina is a neighborhood place where people come for a meal or a drink or a chat.

Almost as soon as we sat down, we were given a plate of fresh, hot nacho chips and salsa that were irresistible. The salsa was fresh and spicy hot. My hand kept reaching for just one more chip as I read the menu.

The bartender came over to take our order for drinks. My companion, the Professor, wanted an El Salvadoran beer. The bartender recommended a bottle of Centenario Pilsener. I asked about the soft drinks and the man suggested one flavored with maranon, his daughter's favorite. The pilsener -- a light beer with the slight bitterness of hops -- was served in a pilsener glass. The maranon was served iced and was a pale yellow color. It had a sweet, fruity, bland taste with just an undertone of a smoke. We were both pleased.

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We decided to order El Salvadoran food. I ordered the combination Salvadoran plate and the Professor ordered several appetizers. Commanding our immediate attention was the appetizer of yuca frita con chicharrones. This is deep-fried cassava with fried pork and it was so outstanding, so fresh, so delicious, we concentrated on it first. The pork was all meat, no fat. The cassava was sizzling hot, perfectly fried, absolutely delicious.

"I am a happy man," declared The Professor as he drank his beer and devoured the appetizer.

The quintessential El Salvadoran food is the pupusa. Pupusas are made from two thick, hand-made tortillas that are joined, stuffed and then fried. They are served with salsa or sour cream. Our pupusas this night were filled with shredded pork and cheese and served with curtido, an El Salvadoran cole slaw made with cabbage, carrots and hot pepper that are slightly fermented in a vinegar sauce.

Beans and rice, of course, were the real mainstay. These were serviceable -- plain white rice and refried beans seasoned with cumin and oregano. Nothing fancy, but substantial, filling and nutritious. The fried plantains, though, were a real treat. Maybe they were bananas, as they were sweet and soft, but plantains or bananas, these were fried to perfection and served with El Salvadoran sour cream which is a little lighter and tarter than American sour cream. Also on the combination plate was a chicken tamale. Tamales are stuffed soft corn meal steamed in corn husks or banana leaves. These tamales were served without the wrapper leaves. They were filled with chicken, carrots and olives. Very tasty.

"Let's have some guacamole," the Professor said. Unfortunately, this was our one disappointment. The guacamole tasted like it was bought ready-made in a store. We were happier with the hot sauce we requested. We were given two small bottles of green and red El Yacateco Salsa Picante de Chile Habanero, the real hot stuff.

The only choice for dessert was El Salvadoran cheesecake although, at other times, there may be flan.

"Now, it's not New York cheesecake," the bartender/waiter warned. He came back bearing two plates that held a triangle of a warmed, slim golden cake with sesame seeds on top. The cake was in between dry and moist, not quite either. The taste was divine -- sweet, rich and buttery. The Professor tasted the Parmesan cheese in it. The other cheese was most likely an unsalted El Salvadoran queso fresco, a fresh farmer's cheese. The one similarity to traditional New York cheesecake was that this quesadilla SalvadeƱa, like New York cheesecake, stood on its own merits and was not covered with cloying sauces or fruits.

The bartender-waiter came to our table and the Professor and he discussed the beers. Coors Lite, Yuengling, Killian's Irish Red, and Shock Top Belgian White were on tap. "Would you like a taster of the Shock Top Belgian?" he asked and at a nod from the Professor, he came back with a small glass.

"Fruity," said the Professor after a taste.

The Spanish word "palenque" has several meanings. But I think the restaurant's name refers to the translation "outdoor festival or fiesta." On the wall of the restaurant was a cloth depiction of an outdoor fiesta. El Salvadoran women cooked Pupusas over an open flame and tamales were wrapped in plantain leaves and ready for the party.

This restaurant was bright with the color red predominating. The bricks were painted bright red. The tablecloths featured a scarlet print.

The floor was tiled and the ceiling was painted tin. Two braids of garlic framed the door and a small palm tree sat by the side of the door. There was seating for about 25 at tables and there were 11 seats at the bar. Two televisions sat over the bar and there was a pool table in the back. El Palenque is a neighborhood place.

The prices were reasonable. "What a deal!" said the Professor. The food was delicious. "I love this food," said the Professor. The service was outstanding. "Thanks for the beer sample," called the Professor to the bartender as we left. "Let's come back soon," he said to me as we entered the steamy heat of a summer night.

Omni Vore is a pseudonym for a Herald-Mail freelance writer who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.

El Palenque Cantina Restaurant

4 1/2 star

Food: 5 stars (out of 5)

Service: 5 stars

Ambiance: 3 stars

Value: 5 stars

Address: 204 E. Franklin St., Hagerstown

Phone: 240-625-9161

Kitchen hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.

Style: El Salvadoran, Mexican and American food

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