It seems like some things in Alameda never change: the colorful Victorian houses, the ghosts who inhabit the USS Hornet, and the cops who pull you over for driving a touch over 25 miles per hour. Its cadre of old-school diners, including Ole's Waffle Shop, Jim's Coffee Shop, Marti's Place, and Albert's Cafe, doesn't seem to change much either.
But unless you're an Albert's regular, you might have missed its recent changes. The West End restaurant was purchased about a year ago by husband-and-wife team Victor Carpio and Mirian Rodas, along with Carpio's mother, Rosa Beltran, who has since retired. The family kept the same reasonably priced American breakfast menu while adding a brand-new Salvadoran menu.
That's right: pupusas, nuegados, and other Salvadoran specialties have arrived in Alameda. While Albert's Cafe is one of the few places on the Island that serves pupusas, the owners aren't new to the pupusa game. Beltran started her own pupuseria 30 years ago back in El Salvador. When she came to Oakland in 2003, Beltran worked at a Mexican restaurant, where she not only learned to make Mexican food, but also started making and selling pupusas. There, Rodas said, she became known for making pupusas just like the ones back home. "You can go to Salvador ... Everything is the same," Rodas said.
Nearly a decade ago, Beltran, along with her son and daughter-in-law, opened Pupuseria & Taqueria Rosita in Newark, which is thriving today. Rodas said Beltran was the first to sell Salvadoran food in Newark, where her clientele consisted mostly of non-Salvadorans. Similarly, Albert's is the first Alameda restaurant offering a full Salvadoran menu. Rodas said many Albert's customers had never tried Salvadoran food before, but she's convinced most of them. In other words, the family knows how to turn people into pupusa converts.
I started with one of the traditional pupusas, stuffed with beans, cheese, and pork. All three ingredients were mixed together to create a filling that was salty, creamy, and satisfying. But most striking was the pupusa's exterior. I don't think many people would describe pupusas as "light," but that's exactly what came to mind when I took my first bite — crisp, airy, flavorful, and devoid of excess grease. And as you'd expect from any good pupuseria, the pupusas here are made to order, and they're bigger than any others I've seen. They were accompanied by a helping of crunchy, sweet-tangy curtido, a fermented cabbage slaw tinged a cheery pink thanks to the use of purple cabbage. Tomato salsa came in an all-you-can-pour pitcher, and was so flavorful that I found myself reaching for the pitcher again and again.
Customers also can create their own pupusas, with fillings like beans, cheese, chicken, beef, loroco, and zucchini. The zucchini and cheese pupusa had so much creamy, tangy melted cheese inside that it oozed out of the pupusa with each bite. The zucchini was gently cooked so it retained a slight crunch and bright green color. The pupusa with cheese and loroco, an edible vine flower bud, was stuffed with more loroco than I've ever seen in a single pupusa.
A plate of plantains served with beans and crema made an ideal accompaniment for the pupusas. The plantains were caramelized to a deep brown, with bits of crunchy, chewy sugar around the edges. The beans were smooth and rich, and the crema added a hint of tang to the sugary plantains.
I also tried the Salvadoran tamales stuffed with chicken, which Rodas said are made fresh daily. The masa was incredibly moist, flavorful, and custard-like, while the chicken inside was juicy and piquant. I wish the tamales had been served with the banana leaf on, as pictured on the menu — I couldn't detect the flavor of the banana leaf in the tamale. The sweet corn tamale, although a bit dry, showcased the delicate aroma of the corn.
For serious comfort food, don't miss the Salvadoran soups, particularly the shrimp soup. The buttery broth had a rich sweetness from the shrimp, while spinach, onions, tomato, and a squeeze of lime added brightness. The soup came with a generous amount of tail-on shrimp served in the shell, deveined for easy peeling. Be sure to suck on the shells and tails before digging into the meat to savor the full flavor of the shrimp. The shrimp were a little overcooked on one of my visits, but the flavors were comforting, complex, and worth returning for.
Not all Salvadoran restaurants offer nuegados, so I was excited to see them on the menu. They are made with mashed yucca root mixed with cheese and eggs, formed into disks and deep fried. They're served with syrup made from panela, an unrefined cane sugar with notes of burnt caramel. I loved the thick, crisp golden crust combined with the chewy interior, and the nuegados had a pleasant, slightly cheesy flavor.
I also ordered the empanadas for dessert — one with milk filling and one with bean filling. The empanadas are made with mashed plantain that's filled and deep-fried, then dusted with sugar. The surprising tartness of the plantain made a good foil for the sweet fillings, and despite being deep-fried, they weren't overly greasy.
I couldn't review Albert's without ordering "The Hippie," the dish for which the cafe has long been known. It's a pile of hash browns with grilled onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms, served with eggs your way and your choice of toast. It had been over a decade since this born-and-raised Alamedan had last tried "The Hippie," and it tasted just like I remembered. The hash browns were crisp around the edges, although they needed more seasoning, and the veggies were nicely caramelized, though they, too, could have used more seasoning. The whole-wheat toast was pretty run-of-the-mill, but the eggs were cooked to a perfect over-easy. It won't draw crowds of brunch-goers, but at $8.50, the price was remarkably old-fashioned for such a huge portion. It's a reminder of what breakfast used to be before "brunch" became a noun, verb, and social event.
That's part of the charm, as that kind of simple, unpretentious breakfast gets harder to find in the Bay Area. In taking over Albert's Cafe, the owners have not only preserved one of the Island's long-standing breakfast institutions, but brought a full-fledged Salvadoran restaurant — and a very good one — to Alameda in the process. That's the kind of change we should celebrate.