Editor’s Note: In a follow-up to last week’s conversation with Cesar Fuentes of the Red Hook Ballfield Food Vendors, Leanne Tory-Murphy talks with the one who made him who he is – his mom, Reina Soler of Solber Pupusas.
By Leanne Tory-Murphy
What’s a pupusa, you ask? If you don’t know the answer, you’re in for a treat. A pupusa is a thick corn tortilla filled with all kinds of savory ingredients like pork, cheese, beans, and sometimes even a flower called the loroco. The bread and butter of El Salvador, pupusas are eaten often in Central America – for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Now Reina offers Brooklynites the opportunity to do the same by slinging pupusas hot off the griddle to hungry devotees at the Brooklyn Flea, Smorgasburg and beyond.
From the happiest region of El Salvador, to a wartime flight to the mean streets of Brooklyn, here’s the story of Reina’s journey.
Could you start by introducing yourself?
My name is Reina Soler. I come from the country of El Salvador. I arrived to the U.S. during the 80s. Well, my dream, what I could call my American Dream, was always to have my own business, but for one reason or another, I had not been able to, until I was given the opportunity to sell with the Red Hook Food Vendors. We started 10, 11 years ago. We started with very little! I didn’t know anything about business.
My son always tells a story that makes everyone laugh, but now I always remember. The first day of selling, someone asked for a coffee and I didn’t have change to give to the person who was buying from me, and I said “We have to bring change!” I always remember this moment, because it was the beginning, of my dream, and I didn’t know anything!
The way things are now, well, we are happy, because the people like our food. We keep growing little by little, and we’ve thought about having our own restaurant in the future.
Where in El Salvador are you from?
I am from the Eastern part of El Salvador called San Miguel. San Miguel is one of the happiest parts of El Salvador! We are famous because we have a carnival celebrating the end of the year in the middle of November. It is more joyful than you can imagine! The people dance in the street and in the parks! The weather is hot, but we have very beautiful beaches nearby. We are an hour from the border with Honduras.
Why did you leave?
What made me leave my country, practically speaking, was that during this time there was a war. I had to emigrate because the situation was really bad. My main fear was for my son. And, well, I said to myself, I have to leave, because really it was not possible, it was not possible to live peacefully in El Salvador. I left above all for the well-being of my son.
Now I am really happy because my son is helping me a lot with my dream. And now he is trying to help me even more than he has always helped me because he is the director of the Red Hook Food Vendors and he was able to arrive there, practically, by helping me! [laughs]
They were going to take away our opportunity to sell food in the park in Red Hook, and my son went to a meeting one day, and they took him and asked him to be the spokesperson, he was very young and was afraid. And I said to him, “Son, try” because it’s only through trying that we can see if it’s possible, or if it’s not possible.
I was very proud of him because we were able to move forward. Looking back I think it was worth the pain of leaving my country because I was able to bring him to a peaceful place in the future. This country has given us a lot. He has been able to make the most of his time.
How did you find out about the Red Hook Ballfields?
I knew of it because we have some friends from El Salvador. They invited us to eat there. Later, I liked the idea of selling, and we always had the idea to have a food truck. Then we got one, and we asked if we could bring it there, and we were told there was an opportunity because one of the vendors had left. My husband started by selling his carne asada. And then later we started growing, little by little.
What were you doing before you were a food vendor?
I worked taking care of sick people, a home attendant. I cared for elderly people and also I worked as a housekeeper, including for one person for 30 years, whom I don’t want to leave because she is very dear to me. I always saw her writing about food, she wrote for The New York Times about food. And one day I heard we have appeared in the newspaper. We have many articles in The New York Times, not by her, mind you, because we have always tried to maintain a working relationship. But she is very happy that I have been able to move forward. It’s intense, because this work is not easy , but we have a lot of will.
How did you decide to get involved with food? Did you have experience?
For us, in El Salvador, the pupusa is the typical food. You eat it in the morning for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner. It made me think, if we like it so much, then also we can introduce it here so people can taste how good it is.
We make it at home. I made my pupusas just like this at home.
In my country, I had not yet worked. I will repeat it, in my country the situation did not allow for the opportunity to go out to the fields.
Who taught you how to cook?
My mother. My mother passed away. This was another reason why I brought my son (to the U.S.) because really I didn’t have someone to care for him, because she passed away.
Is there a particular memory you have of her?
I was her only daughter, and my mom didn’t like it when I would go into the kitchen because she was afraid I would do something bad! So I, always from afar, went along learning how to make the food. I always remember being far from the preparation, but I learned!
Above all when I came to this country and I missed our food…I think that is when I developed a greater love for our cuisine. And not knowing about where to eat a pupusa or tamale, this made me learn how to cook.
For those who have not tried it, what is a pupusa?
The pupusa is a tortilla. It comes filled with different ingredients. It could be with meat or vegetables. Of meat, we have them with chicken, pork, fish — which in actuality they don’t eat in my country, but I could say it was my idea. The typical pupusas in El Salvador are pork with cheese and beans with cheese. So, I had the idea to make pepperoni and cheese, also vegetables — we have loroco, which is traditional in El Salvador. The loroco is an edible flower, produced in ES, which has an exquisite taste and flavor, which, when mixed with cheese, is very rich. We also have zucchini with cheese, spinach, and another idea of mine has been to mix cheese with jalapeno and also to mix pork, cheese and jalapeno. And for the vegetarians, there is the beans, cheese and jalapeno.
My husband is from the Caribbean, from the Dominican Republic. We have created a dish of a pupusa with fried sweet plantains. We call it the Red Hook Platter, that incorporates a Caribbean touch. It comes with sausage and sweet plantains. It combines our flavors from the Caribbean and Central America.
I will have to try it!
You do have to try it! They are delicious!
What do you serve the pupusas with? There are a few things on them…
The dish is originally served with pickled cabbage. And also with homemade tomato salsa. We have added some ingredients. Jalapeno if the person likes it, and also sour cream and pickled onion that we prepare.
What is your dream for the future?
To have a restaurant! Here in Brooklyn. In Red Hook or in this area (Fort Greene) or the place where we have the other Flea, in Williamsburg. Yes, this is my dream.
It motivates me even more when people come and ask me “When are you going to have your restaurant?” I say “Very soon!” It gives me more strength to realize my dream.
What are you going to name your restaurant?
I still have no idea! But it would have to say something with “pupusa”…yes.
Do you return to El Salvador sometimes?
Yes, well, now that I have my business, it takes a lot of my time, so I am traveling less. But yes. I have five brothers, they are all there.
What has been the most exciting moment since starting your business?
One of the most exciting moments for me in this whole journey of my business is when Martha Stewart came, enjoying all of the cooking classes that there were at the Flea. And what excitement for me when I was invited to be on her show! For me it was a dream! Remembering it, it still seems like a dream. I was on the show with her to demonstrate how to make a pupusa. Very exciting.
Did she like the pupusa?
She loved it! When she first tried it she liked it and then she said “I want to learn how to make the pupusa!” Then we went to the show. For me it has been one of the most beautiful moments, one of the most excited moments.
Ah, so you are famous?
[laughs] Well, I will never forget it in my life. Can you imagine?!