Bright blue chairs fill the restaurant and various pictures that depict villages cover the walls. An El Salvador flag proudly hangs on the wall with smaller versions found on every table.
Greeted by the owner Luis Gonzalez, you could order a dish Leonardo DiCaprio claimed is better than tacos.
Starting out as a food truck that only attended local farmers markets and festivals, Selena’s Salvadorian has moved its business into a brick and mortar restaurant that gives Tucson a taste of El Salvador.
“I moved from California back in ’94 and we started doing big events like the Casino Del Sol Tamal [& Heritage] Festival,” Luis Gonzalez said. “People said, ‘Hey, this is a good window to show your food and everything,’ so we did events like farmers markets as an opportunity to sell our food before I opened the restaurant. I did that for about four years.”
Two months ago, Luis Gonzalez decided to upgrade the truck to an actual building, saying they were inspired to make the change after people encouraged them to move to a restaurant.
“People were asking about it,” Luis Gonzalez said. “They would say, ‘This food is really great, where is the restaurant?’ and we’re like, ‘This is it.’ I think that motivated us to pursue bigger things.”
Selena’s Salvadorian gives the Tucson community the opportunity to branch out from regular Mexican restaurants in town. According to Luis Gonzalez, Selena’s Salvadorian is one of the only formal restaurants in Tucson that serves Salvadorian food. He said most people just stick to food trucks or selling it out of their homes.
“This is our second month and we’re getting a really good response from people,” Luis Gonzalez said. “It’s a good chance for everyone to try something different than just Mexican, Chinese and all the other food that’s been in Tucson for years now.”
The most popular item on the menu are pupusas. Differing from tacos, pupusas can be vegan or include pork.
“Pupusas are pretty much masa [corn mix] and what we do is stuff it with carnitas, beans, cheese and veggies,” Gonzalez said. “We make a snowball, turn it into a tortilla shape and then it goes on the grill.”
Andi Berlin, a digital food reporter for This is Tucson, said that pupusas are the thing to get there.
“Pupusas are the thing you want to eat there,” Berlin said. “It’s kind of hip right now because Leonardo DiCaprio said he liked pupusas better than tacos. They are really delicious.”
Along with pupusas, Selena’s Salvadorian offers a wide variety of vegan and vegetarian options. Sandra Gonzalez, a chef at Selena’s Salvadorian, said the vegan pupusas often surprise customers.
“One day I didn’t have enough chicharron for this customer’s pupusas, so I told him I could make him a veggie one,” Sandra Gonzalez said. “He said he didn’t like veggies but he still ordered one. Half an hour later he called me and said, ‘Oh my god, this is incredible.’”
As for being better than a taco, Luis Gonzalez said that some people do prefer pupusas once they find out about them.
“It’s a different taste,” Luis Gonzales said. “The majority of the people here are Mexican, especially since we’re close to the border. So a lot of people know a lot about Mexican food, but not everyone knows what a pupusa is. I think that when they discover it, they start thinking, ‘Hmm, this might be better than a taco.’”
According to Berlin, Selena’s Salvadorian’s food offers a good balance of tanginess, saltiness and richness, and he recommends people check it out.
“I definitely suggest going there, because it’s different than anything you can get around here,” Berlin said. “It’s really exciting that Tucson has a Salvadorian restaurant, because it makes us more of an international cuisine. It’s a very down-home kind of place. It gives you a feeling that you’re somewhere else.”
Luis Gonzalez encourages people to come and give the restaurant a try because it allows them to step out of their comfort zone and experience something new.
“It’s something different,” Luis Gonzalez said. “Just give it a shot, it’s really delicious. I highly recommend it, not just because it’s my food.”
Follow Jamie Donnelly on Twitter