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Why doesn't anyone debate the merits of last impressions? When it comes to restaurants, these are often the ones that linger.
For instance my lasting impression of La Molienda, a Salvadoran restaurant located on West Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, is of the bathrooms. They're positioned not inside the restaurant but outside it, as with gas stations and some fast-food places -- thus betraying the origins of this freestanding building. Not only are they unsettlingly close to the rank garbage bins, but they stand beyond the restaurant's eaves. If you lack the foresight to bring an umbrella into the restaurant and it starts to pour, you have two options: Try to hold in the Coronas you just drank, or make a dash for it. Either way you're gonna get wet.
What exactly do bathrooms say about a restaurant? A lot, any health inspector will tell you. They can provide clues to the customer about how, say, the kitchen is kept. No soap in the dispenser or paper in the stalls? Trash strewn on the floor? Reach for the Pepto-Bismol, 'cause conditions in the kitchen aren't likely to be too sanitary either.
In the case of La Molienda, the bathrooms, neither scrupulously clean nor conspicuously dirty, give the patron a hint of what to expect from the eatery. They say, "This place has all the decorative charm of a cellblock." They say, "Don't bother to dress up. In fact you could probably walk in here without a shirt or shoes and still get waited on." They say, "In the end, we're serviceable. We work. If you can tailor your expectations a bit, you can walk away satisfied."
Indeed, from the scarred linoleum floors to the fraying Brady Bunchera vinyl booths, it's pretty clear La Molienda has no pretensions. Nor does it seem to have a big budget backing it up. How could it, when silverware is wrapped in plastic bags and the paper place mats are tourist maps of Florida? Instead it looks like proprietor Rolando Dallegos, who owns Marolo's Italian restaurants in Cooper City and Coral Springs, had only one thing in mind: to open a joint that serves his no-frills, native Salvadoran cuisine at prices that say "cheap as dirt" in Spanish, English, or any language.
It's good that the intention, via the prices, does come through loud and clear, because the staff doesn't seem to speak much English. Bad news for gringos, but one can always resort to pointing. If you aren't dining with someone who has at least a modicum of Spanish under his belt, don't bother asking for explanations. The menu, though it doesn't provide translations for all items, is about all the info you're likely to get.
So when sopa de gallina is rewritten in English as "hen soup," believe it. This rich stock wasn't made with any mere chicken. It was brewed with a matriarch and as such had real, pungent flavor. (Maturer chickens actually make for better soup than younger ones.) Chunks of the hen, along with potatoes and carrots, stocked the unskimmed (read: slightly greasy) broth, which was accompanied by a thick corn tortilla and a scoop of somewhat stale rice served on the side. If you're a soup lover, think Campbell's Chunky: It does indeed eat like a meal, and hey, we ordered the smaller size.
The soups change daily, so if you're looking for something a little more dependable to begin your meal, check out the pupusas. You have your choice of three fillings for these palm-size, corn-tortilla sandwiches: refried beans, cheese, or chicharrón (minced pork rind). The cheese version can be somewhat bland, but the bean pupusas were hearty, the pork ones zesty. All were accompanied by a tangy, marinated cabbage carrot slaw, along with two condiments, a dish of puréed tomato salsa and another of spicy cured vegetables, which included vibrant jalapeño peppers. And if you have a sweet tooth, definitely weigh the option of the tamal de elote. This superior corn tamale was sweet and moist, more like a Mexican torta, and served with a dollop of sour cream on the side.
If you consider how close El Salvador actually is to Mexico -- blocked from its physical borders only by the intercession of Guatemala -- then perhaps it's not surprising to find tortilla chips and salsa on the table and chicken fajitas on the menu. The free chips were iffy, with some stale enough to bend like a playing card but others crisp and fresh. Fajitas, though, surprised us with their succulence, the strips of marinated chicken thick and gristle-free. Accompanying them, pleasantly spiced refried beans and slightly sour guacamole were expected partners; warmed corn tortillas, despite a rather late appearance on the table, were a nice switch from the more familiar flour ones.
La Molienda also offers a Mexican-style steak on its menu, but don't overlook the Salvadoran version: a pounded flank steak smothered with a rich salsa of tomatoes, peppers, and onions. The juicy meat, filling on its own, was served like all the main courses, with thick corn tortillas and a choice of two side dishes. Tostones (fried green plantains) were crunchy with just a hint of sweetness, providing an appetizing foil for the steak, as did stewed kidney beans. Maduros (fried sweet plantains) also won us over with their caramelized texture, but boiled yuca was just insipid enough to disappoint.
While La Molienda succeeds in its meat and poultry preparations, the ancient tortilla chips should have given us a clue that not everything in the restaurant was fresh. An appetizer of coctel de concha, a sundae glass filled with chopped onions, peppers, and tiny nuggets of conch couched in an unsettlingly dark sauce, tasted as if it had been scraped off the walls of the refrigerator. The herbs within also looked as if they had endured a marathon wait, lost behind the eggs and butter, given that they were starting to disintegrate.
Fish and shellfish main courses weren't any better. The mariscada en salsa, seafood Salvadoran style, was an enormous amount of squid, shrimp, mussels, clams, and fish, all sautéed in a tomato sauce and poured over rice. Unfortunately none of it was actually edible. The bivalves were grainy with enough sand to form a hundred pearls, and rank, chewy squid, which revealed its age by its yellowed color, flavored the entire dish. Another entrée, the whole fried red snapper, was clearly fresh and sweetly fleshed. But it had been swimming in the deep fryer so long that it was practically mummified. It was too much of an effort to pry the meat off the bones, let alone swallow the pieces we managed to dislodge, which were as sharply angled as staples. Since El Salvador, like Fort Lauderdale, has an ample coastline, I'd expected more expertise here.
Dessert menus were not forthcoming. Instead the server listed sweets verbally, a challenge for the monolingual diner. You can always stick with a standby flan, but nuegados, greaseless yuca pancakes drizzled with a caramel syrup, were better than most I've tasted. If you can't communicate with the server about sweets, head for the luncheonette counter at the rear of the restaurant and grab a takeout menu -- it lists desserts that beckon an index finger. Just beware washing everything down with a cup or two of caffeinated coffee. That could send you directly to the restrooms, thus muting whatever good impressions you might have formed during the meal.