Cheap Date

Gloria’s Secret Café

With Brian Barker May 19, 2009 Published in the February 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

The Pupusa plate at Gloria’s Secret Cafe

If there’s a cheerier restaurant in town than this shoebox-size Salvadoran café, we haven’t found it. The dining room holds only four tables, and its pink-and-yellow walls are adorned with colorful parrot figurines and strings of plastic chile-pepper lights.

Owner Gloria Vargas—whom you might recognize from the Beaverton Farmers Market, where she sells chicken tamales stuffed with green olives and capers—is just as colorful. An El Salvador native and self-taught cook, Vargas is full of lively chatter (ask about the time she cooked for David Hasselhoff), and she’ll frequently emerge from the kitchen to make sure you’re satisfied with your order.

She needn’t worry. Each dish, which comes plated with black beans, golden rice, and a crisp watercress-and-cabbage salad, is as eye-catching as it is rib-sticking. The chicken mole ($10.50) is smothered in a smoky ancho and poblano chile sauce laced with chocolate and bits of white onion. Tender and meaty, the mango and habanero chicken ($10.50) heats up the palate without rocketing off the Scoville scale. If it’s comfort food you seek, look no further than Vargas’s handmade pupusas ($10.50). A traditional Salvadoran staple, these thick, pancake-size rounds of masa are filled with panfried shredded pork and three types of cheese—Monterey jack, quesillo , and mozzarella—and sautéed in an iron skillet before being topped with pickled cabbage. It’s just the sort of dish that Gloria’s specializes in: the kind you’ll never regret ordering.

Visiting Gloria’s does require special consideration, though: the restaurant is open only for lunch. But if you call ahead, Vargas will serve private dinner parties at the restaurant, in which case you’re welcome to bring your own Pacifico. Just remember to offer a well-deserved toast to the hostess. Closed Sun, Mon.