Every now and then, while travelling, you stumble across something wonderful. Whether a hidden beach in a secluded cove, a spectacular landscape, or something a simple as a cool dive bar or an interesting piece of art; you walk away elevated — content on the highest level. This happened to us while visiting San Miguel, in Southeastern El Salvador. It was here that we found one of the best restaurants in the region, and arguably the best soup in El Salvador.
On a last-minute suggestion from the manager of our hostel in San Miguel, we set off in search of a “quick lunch, something typical, Salvadorian.” He recommended a nearby soup shop, called Sopa el Mondongo, telling us that it’s famous around San Miguel.
Less than ten minutes away, already drenched with sweat in the muggy, 37-degree heat, we arrive on the map marker and see the sign. Yet there is no storefront in sight, only a dusty, walled-in parking lot. As we investigate the lot, we see smoke billowing out of an open door on the rear wall.
It’s a mix of roasting meats, aromatics, and charcoal smoke. It’s a good smell — one we know always leads to satisfaction.
Sopa el Mondongo
Sopa el Mondongo first opened its doors in 1986, we learn from the original owner’s son and granddaughter. Both of whom live in Montreal and Texas, respectively, are currently in town for Carnaval, the biggest party of the year. Thankfully, by their presence (and fluent English) we were able to learn a little about the place.
Grandma started the soup business with only a single pot and a handful of bowls. Thirty-some years later, it’s a thriving family business; with aunts, mothers, sons and daughters running the operation. Even the family visiting from out of the country are involved, serving tables and washing dishes.
The Atmosphere is Amazing
The main restaurant is in a typically Salvadorian interior, that is a roofed-building with an open-air courtyard attached. Many wooden tables are crammed together with matching benches, maximizing seating room inside. For those willing to pay 50 cents more for their meal, and indoor air-conditioned seating area is available. A smart idea in these parts.
Nothing separates the food preparation or dish-washing station from the dining room. It’s all one big happy, loud, smokey and chaotic area. It’s a beautiful thing. Every few minutes, someone brings in another wheelbarrow full of firewood through the dining room. Five massive cauldrons sit bubbling over open flames, while nearby another wood-fire heats a grill covered in chicken pieces.
The dripping chicken fat, bubbling broth and smoke from the fires are a symphony of aromas. It’s absolutely intoxicating.
Time for Soup
When we first sit down, a woman arrives at our table almost immediately to take our order. She speaks in Spanish very quickly and we are so confused as to what is happening. Thankfully, we already know that there are two options: mondongo or gallina. No menus, just soup — and beer.
Mondongo, we know from our time in Colombia, is tripe soup. Tripe is cow stomach. It can be delicious, but it can also be… not delicious. Instead, we both opt for gallina, a chicken soup, and are given the option of breast meat or a leg and thigh combo. Obviously, we choose dark meat.
Two huge, steaming bowls arrive almost immediately. And just as we think “Ok, these are meal-sized soups,” two plates full of rice, pickled jalapeños and the chicken show up. These are definitely full meal soups.
The soup itself is a rich broth, filled with all kinds of fresh vegetables. From carrots and zucchini, to baby corn, beans and potatoes; everything is so fresh and explodes with flavour. This is your grandma’s chicken soup on steroids. The rice is a nice addition, as are the jalapeños and curtido from the pail on the table. And a squeeze of fresh lime on the side rounds everything out.
The chicken itself is phenomenal, albeit a little on the dry side from the high-heat cooking, but the flavour imparted from the open fire is perfect. And considering you tear it up and throw it in a broth anyway, moisture is irrelevant! Bonus points for perfectly crisp skin.
Go for it all!
When Juan stops by our table to chat, he asks if we had tried the mondongo. When we tell him that we’d tried it in Colombia, he insists we try it here, as every region does it differently. As we’ve experienced this with many foods throughout many regions, we know he is right. He offers to bring us a small sample to try before leaving. How can we say no?
Seconds later, another bowl of soup arrives. Not as big as our others, but far more than what could be considered a “small sample.” Swimming in the thick, dark broth are long pieces of beef tendon, a piece of hoof and, of course, tripe. As well, a large chunk of unpeeled plantain and a knob of corn accompanied the offal. After a quick squirt of lime, we dive in, and it is incredible.
The depth of flavour with a soup like this is hard to put into words. Maybe Bourdain could do it, but certainly not a mere cretin like myself. The tendon is braised perfectly and melted like thick gelatin in the mouth. The hoof and tripe are equally well-prepared — by no means an easy feat. These people know exactly what they’re doing, and they do it well.
One of the World’s Greatest Hangover Cures
While paying, we chat with Juan a little more. He is excited to be visiting home, but even more so for the evening’s festivities during Carnaval. He mentions that tomorrow will be the busiest day of the year, as it always is.
Kylee and I spoke earlier about what a great hangover cure this would be, and that’s exactly what Juan is getting at. They’ll open at 6 am for the crowds of party-goers eager to sort themselves straight.
If You Only have One Meal in San Miguel…
We’ve really enjoyed our short time here in San Miguel, but this is without question one of the best moments.
If you find yourself in these parts, if only for a few hours between buses, you need to check this place out. It truly is one of the best places we’ve ever eaten in El Salvador.