Do you like the idea of a family-operated business? This is your place. Dad owns it. Daughter runs it. Granddaughter, 7, is the name on the sign. There's nothing big-box or corporate about Isabel's Taqueria & Pupuseria.
Do you like learning about a culture through food? This is your place. When the Cabrera family members arrived here, they didn't find a lot of Salvadoran food in multicultural Sacramento. So they opened a restaurant five years ago to share the flavors and cooking techniques from their homeland with those in their adopted hometown.
Do you like food prepared the old-fashioned way? So do they. When you place your order, that's when they start cooking. Nothing is reheated. Nothing is sitting under hot lamps. It's simple, unhurried cooking.
If you are in a big hurry, if you don't think good food takes time or if your boss gives you a mere 30 minutes for lunch, this place may not be for you. But you'll be missing plenty for the sake of expediency.
The food here is delicious, revelatory, plentiful and affordable. And it's part of the culinary mosaic that makes Sacramento a great but underappreciated food town. The strongest segment just might be the area's myriad ethnic restaurants that offer lively cooking, new or familiar flavor sensations and great prices.
Isabel's is not 100 percent authentic Salvadoran cuisine. It's a cultural hybrid, the result of trial and error. Not everyone was getting all aspects of the homespun cooking, so they jettisoned some things from the menu and added others. The Salvadoran horchata, for instance, wasn't really catching on. The authentic version is not made with milk, so it's not as creamy as most folks are used to.
That's how you stay in business. Now, we have a Salvadoran eatery with a Mexican twist. The burritos, ranging in size from big to huge, are highly recommended, especially the intensely flavored and fiery al pastor version. The carnitas are also a real treat for the taste buds. The immense size is neither Mexican nor Salvadoran. For better or worse, it's a nod to American sensibilities, though I'm told the super-duper burrito phenomenon is catching on in Central America.
But it was the pupusas more than anything that made us appreciate the flavors, textures, aromas and time-honored values behind the food at Isabel's. They are about the size of a side plate. They're thicker than a standard quesadilla and don't have as much filling as a Mexican gordita.
They are handmade with corn-based dough that you can smell before you take your first bite. The fillings range from simple cheese to cheese and beans and a variety of meats with cheese. The standard options are all here. Our favorite was once again the al pastor, intensely spicy pork that is marinated for a full day before cooking. We also enjoyed the pupusa with cheese and loroco (an edible flower common in Central America).
Best of all, these pupusas are $2. Have one as a snack, or two or three for a full meal. Perhaps the best way to sample the food is to create a combo meal – one pupusa, a Salvadoran tamale and a pastel. Grand total: $6.
Those pasteles look like mini-tortillas but much darker – a deep reddish- brown. They're filled with steak and potato, then deep-fried. Really good, but more like a rustic delicacy than something terribly filling.
The Salvadoran-style tamales differ somewhat from the Mexican version, according to Isabel's manager, Blanca Cabrera. They're wrapped in banana leaves, and the masa is cooked with chicken stock to infuse more flavor. These tamales are just $2. The Mexican style is $1.75.
The burritos are a ridiculous value – $4 for the regular, $5 for super, which adds lettuce, sour cream, avocado and cheese. It's worth noting that Isabel's is across the street from McClatchy High School. One night we visited, half the very well- behaved wrestling team was there chowing down after a workout.
Isabel's serves breakfast from 8 a.m. to noon. Astounding: I found the most expensive item on the breakfast menu, the steak and eggs breakfast plate for $7.99. It comes with rice, beans and tortillas. The sausage and veggie burrito? $2.75. Is this restaurant in a time warp to 1972?
On days when I want food that's sincere and delicious, familiar yet foreign, and, more than anything, affordable, this is my place.
Isabel's Taqueria & Pupuseria
3071 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday.
Beer and wine? Yes.
Vegetarian friendly? Somewhat.
Overall 3 stars (good)
When you factor in the made-to-order cooking and the excellent prices, this is a really nice option for casual food done right.
Food 3 stars (good)
The foodie crowd might come for the authentic pupusas, a staple of casual eating in El Salvador, but don't overlook many other appealing parts of the menu, like the tamales and pasteles. The Mexican food is well represented. The al pastor burrito is smokin' hot and delicious. The wet burrito just might put you into a food coma, though you'll be smiling as you go under.
Service 3 stars (good)
You order at the counter, where the friendly staff will help newcomers understand the menu and cooking styles.
Ambience 3 stars (good)
Nice colors, open floor plan, cozy with a touch of style. Outdoor seating when the weather is nice.
Value 4 stars (excellent)
For food that embraces old-fashioned values – cooking from scratch, nothing reheated or thawed out – the value here is as good as any place in this category in Sacramento.