Talk to Salvadorans about their national dish, the pupusa, and they are likely to tell you the griddled corn cakes are much easier to buy from a street vendor than to make at home. Traditionally stuffed with ingredients such as cheese, chicharron and beans, pupusas are time-consuming and tricky.
“In all honesty, it took us a while to really do it,” said Jeannette Katz, who grew up in the small El Salvador town of Santiago Texacuangos, but never truly mastered the art of shaping and cooking the iconic food. She did, however, inherit the family tendency to practice entrepreneurship, a trait that serves her well as a restaurateur who’s had to adapt her business to suit the times.
Jeannette, 53, and her husband, Ken Katz, 52, are the owners of La Bodega Market & Pupuseria, a southwest Atlanta walk-up that serves traditional pupusas, as well as new-fangled versions stuffed with Buffalo chicken; barbecue chicken; and pesto, mozzarella and roast chicken — as well as a menu of sandwiches, pastries, breakfast dishes and coffee drinks.
The couple started La Bodega as a pop-up in 2019, while running Buenos Dias Cafe, a Decatur Street breakfast and lunch spot whose tacos, Cubanos and quesadillas were popular with the Georgia State University and downtown communities. After the pandemic hit, the Katzes were forced to close 8-year-old Buenos Dias and focus on La Bodega, located in the MET Atlanta development.
But, because they hope to reopen Buenos Dias at some point, and don’t want to lose their loyal customers, they’ve kept it alive as a virtual restaurant, serving food from both menus out of one kitchen. They also play host to local pop-ups at their Murphy Avenue storefront.
The Katzes met in the early ’90s, while working together at a seafood restaurant in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. By then, Ken had an economics degree from Emory, and Jeannette had served in the Salvadoran army and studied fashion in California.
“One of the reasons I like fashion is that it’s fast,” she said. “I cannot stay still. I’m always thinking six months ahead.”
That’s an excellent trait to have during a pandemic.
When she brought up the Buffalo pupusa, Ken joked that her grandmother would turn over in her grave. “But, you’ve got to make it accessible to the market here,” he said of the dish, which is less known than other Latin American staples.
Their willingness to try new things scored them big points with customers at Buenos Dias, where they tweaked the menu to accommodate vegan and vegetarian eaters. One popular item was the Everything Blend, a 100 percent natural juice drink made from 12 different fruits and vegetables — “no ice, no sugar, no water.”
Jeanette concocted the healthy sipper when she was pregnant with her first child. Kids are notoriously picky eaters, but she tricked hers into slurping down their veggies by adding a squiggle of whipped cream to her juice blend.
As for pupusas, Ken said they are the perfect hand-held fare, which makes them ideal for a walk-up spot. He’s given up trying to make them, though. “I‘ve been trying for 10 years, and I cannot figure it out,” the Bronx native said. He likens the craft to shaping meatballs or matzo balls. “It’s a distinctive hand movement that you know how to do from repetition. If you do it 10,000 times, you’ll have the muscle memory to do it.”
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LA BODEGA MARKET & PUPUSERIA
Menu: mostly Latin American-inspired breakfast and lunch fare, including many vegetarian and vegan items
What I ordered: from La Bodega: bagel nachos, taco plate, horchata cupcake and orange-carrot muffin; from Buenos Dias: pupusa sampler (revuelta, cheese and black bean, chicken and cheese, vegetarian) and Salvadoran plate (scrambled eggs, plain pupusa, plantains, casamiento). Everything was good. The Salvadoran plate was a tad on the bland side, but the tacos were excellent, and the pupusas were stellar, and reheated well. (They remind me of Southern hoecakes.) I especially liked the chicken and cheese pupusa and the casamiento (mixed beans and rice). Amazingly, the bagel nachos were still crispy several hours after pickup.
Service options: takeout only; order online, by phone or at the walk-up window; delivery available via Grubhub, DoorDash, Postmates and Uber Eats.
Outdoor dining: yes
Mask policy: required of staff; requested of guests
Address, phone: 680 Murphy Ave. SW, Atlanta; 404-809-4158
Hours: 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays
Website: labodegaatl.com; buenosdiascafe.com
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