Last July, when Platano opened on what has to be the most restaurant-intensive block in downtown Berkeley, it represented Irma Mischler’s own particular declaration of independence. The 32-year-old made an amicable break from her mom — Maria Chavez, who owns the restaurant Kaliente in El Sobrante — to mine the food heritage of El Salvador, the place her family immigrated from, in the meticulous way she yearned for. At Kaliente, Chavez mixes up Salvadoran cooking with gringo-friendly stuff like burritos. But Mischler is on her own particular recovery mission, a project to re-create the dishes her mom left behind in Central America. Take a look at Platano’s yuca, a dish that reveals Mischler’s back-to-her-heritage approach better than any vision statement ever could. It might as well be a dish heaped with Mischler’s Salvadoran roots — dug up, hacked into manageable chunks, and deep-fried.
The owner’s quest for authenticity is nothing if not diligent. Even Platano’s wall colors come from her urge to keep it real. She copied the warm, muddy browns and bamboo-leaf greens from a plantain (platano in Spanish), a semiripe cooking banana that served as her muse. The 5,000-square-foot restaurant on University Avenue needs every layer of tropical lushness she can plaster it with. Deep and receding, the dim-in-the-daytime dining room has more floor space than it knows what to do with. Tables line up within corrals of beadboard-paneled half-walls, making way for a couple of dark, underused bars and a superfluous little sofa-filled lounge pit.
But if the restaurant feels as coldly spacious as a hotel lobby in an obsolete colonial capital, much of what shows up at the table has a palpable warmth. Take that yuca frita, heaped up under a ruffle of pickled onion stained fluorescent pink. Starchy, tapering hunks of tuberous cassava root turned gold in the deep-fry; on the plate they mingled with dark knobs of braised pork shoulder, also given the fry treatment. The pork pieces emerged dense, with edges every bit as shattery as malted milk balls — a dual texture worthy of some big, chewy confection. With those tart, salty onion pickles, a mound of the Salvadoran cabbage slaw called curtido, and a splash of thin, puréed tomato salsa, it was a dish that distilled every bit of Mischler’s exuberance into the circumference of a salad plate.
Platano’s handling of El Salvador’s best-known dish turned out to be more about technical competence than exuberance. Pupusas, of course, are thick pancakes of tortilla dough filled with smears of savory fillings, a warm blur of maize-y sweetness, and usually a molten puddle of charmingly stringy cheese. Over four visits, the ones we ate here were just about good enough to rate as ideal. You could show up at Platano with a big appetite for pupusas, slake your thirst with cold, hoppy-tasting Suprema beer from El Salvador, and leave happy and well lubricated.
The pupusas showed up consistently hot and greaseless, and with tasty scorch marks from the flattop. You can pick from about ten fillings. Our favorite was queso y ayote, cheese with a minuscule dice of zucchini that retained its minuscule crunch. We were less enthusiastic about chicharron (long-cooked pork), a slightly pasty mashup. The rest we tasted pretty much yielded gold, including queso y frijoles (black beans with cheese), revuelta (mixed pork and cheese), and queso y loroco (cheese with the pickled buds of a Central American vine).
Curtido is the inevitable pupusa accompaniment — the crunchy, acidic cabbage slaw provides the essential corrective to the orgy of butterfat, fleshy masa, and the unctuousness of pork lurking in your typical platter. But the curtido here struck me as lackluster. Sure, it did its job as efficiently as the crispy membrane of iceberg on a BLT, but I like my curtido to be more than just crunch. I like to be seduced with an incenselike breath of toasted Mexican oregano. On one occasion — a late lunch — the ramekin of curtido that came with a single pupusa smelled stale, as if it had turned funky from sitting too long at room temperature.
The kitchen’s greatest charms may be textural rather than those that build from an extravagance of subtly perfumed tastes. I loved the fluffy little pile of gray meat fibers in Platano’s salpicon, a cold mound of tender-poached beef chopped into loose hash. A boatload of lime juice and small, wilted leaves of fresh mint carried the flavor, exactly as they would have done in a seafood ceviche. But it was the beef’s stick-to-your-teeth texture — simultaneously chewy and tender, like flakes of canned tuna with the moisture squeezed out — that made it so fascinating.
The same kind of textural strangeness lit up carne delisada, a sauté of shredded, jerkylike dried beef. The long, desiccated filaments mingled with onions, tomatoes, and green peppers, and its juices were bound up with tiny curds of scrambled egg. The dark mass of finely intersecting meat fibers combined the bare-knuckles appeal of fried baloney with the delicate tracery of a frisée salad. I wanted to lodge masses of it in my cheeks and chew the scorched, salty flavor right out of it.
Too bad a grilled leg and thigh of chicken, pollo asado, lost its flavor long before it got to the table. It had the deflated taste of a leftover, as if precooked to save time and then just reheated on the grill. The grill marks had a nicely bitter carbon bite, but the flesh underneath was stale and stringy. I should note that we placed our order half an hour before closing on a Saturday night — the cooks may have been taking shortcuts to get us out a little quicker. A smooth slick of red beans (their skins had been painstakingly sieved out) had all the luxuriousness the chicken lacked.
No doubt about it, the kitchen has a way with beans. Casamiento, one of five sides (entrées come with any two you choose), was the best version I’ve tasted. The dish is a simple fry-up of mingled black beans and rice — the word means “wedding.” Platano’s was consistently light and dry, a crumbly mound gone crispy in places, like good hash browns. The best things to eat here may be the simplest, but even dishes that fall flat get a lift from a country that looms so large in Irma Mischler’s imagination.