In El Salvador, it’s considered polite to leave a small amount of food on your plate when you’ve finished eating.
Visitors to the newly opened restaurant, Mom’s Tamales and Pupusas in Midtown Harrisburg, might have a difficult time following tradition once they’ve tasted the pupusas, the authentic national dish of El Salvador.
Pupusas, which are unique to the country, are thick corn tortillas, resembling small stuffed flatbreads, that literally can be filled with anything savory a diner wants—so vegans and vegetarians, fear not. That’s the most appealing aspect of this dish: They’re made to order.
“You cannot make these ahead of time,” said Mom’s Tamales owner Josue Orsoto, adding with a smile, “That would disrespect the culture.”
Orsoto, a first-generation American who opened his restaurant last month, has already garnered a following for his traditional Salvadoran food.
The new business is a neighborhood standout, housed in a building with a brilliant, beautiful mural that adorns the entire front façade, just across the street from Midtown Cinema. The mural was Orsoto’s idea. It depicts, as he explained, “a Latin mother warrior,” and the inspiration was his own mother, who escaped the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s.
She and Orsoto’s father (the couple have known each other since they were 13) made their long journey to a safer life through Mexico, eventually settling in San Diego. His mother, one of 13 children, had family on the East Coast, so it was off to New Jersey and finally Bethlehem, Pa., where Orsoto went to high school. Along the way, he came to value hard work and learned lessons that helped to shape his life today.
He fondly recalls how his mother used to clean a restaurant in West Orange, N.J., from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. each day.
“I would be late for school most days because she needed to finish her work first and then would drive me, and I needed to be there by 7:38 a.m.,” he said.
Her commitment to that job gave him early exposure to the restaurant business and helped him recognize his mother’s tireless work ethic.
Orsoto, an accomplished athlete, followed his brother to the Harrisburg area because he wanted to continue his wrestling career. His brother was pursuing studies at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg. Orsoto wanted to try out for the college team, but a cracked fibula ended those plans. It didn’t deter him from his studies or passions. He attended HACC while continuing to work in the restaurant business.
Local foodies may recognize Orsoto from his posts at popular downtown establishments, most recently at the Hilton, but also El Sol Mexican Restaurant, MoMo’s BBQ and Grill, Firehouse Restaurant and nightclubs Egypt and Mars, among others. His biggest industry immersion came when local legend Nick Laus asked him to open Cork & Fork’s downtown location.
“This was an eye-opener for me,” Orsoto said. “I was in charge of a huge punch list that included plumbers and electricians, always checking to make sure everything was there for our health inspections.”
Now that Orsoto has taken the plunge as a business owner himself, he is leaving no stone unturned. He wants to keep his menu simple, with just 13 items, including the pupusas and tamales, which, unlike Mexican tamales, are wrapped in plantain leaves instead of cornhusks. Many of the recipes are his mother’s own, thus the restaurant moniker.
The atmosphere is casual and welcoming. Diners can eat inside the restaurant or choose to sit outside at café-style seating. The quick service makes it easy for a time-limited lunch crowd to get in and out. The restaurant also offers free wi-fi for those who want to eat while on the job or simply stay connected.
“This is the most stressful thing I have ever done in my life,” Orsoto said, reflecting on his new venture. “It’s been my calling, and I stepped up to the plate and went for it. This is really letting me be a part of the community.”
Mom’s Tamales and Pupusas is located at 263 Reily St., Harrisburg. It is open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday. For more information, visit their Facebook page.
Author: Ann Beth Knaus