Go to La Zacatecana on a Friday afternoon and there are plenty of cooks in the kitchen. Big pots steam on the stove behind the counter, and women peer in a little worriedly and ladle up spoonfuls to check on the dishes' progress. These are the specials for the weekend, like menudo and caldo de res (Honduran beef soup). If you can't read Spanish, deciphering the hand-lettered signs announcing the Saturday and Sunday specials will be a problem, but look around the cash register for a few laminated menus, which are in Spanish and English.
La Zacatecana is tucked away in the rear of the grocery of the same name in a strip mall off Commercial Avenue. On a sunny day, it might be called "unprepossessing" and in worse weather might be termed "bleak." (It's off Hwy. 30, near the roundabout close to Thompson Drive, and there's a Rosati's Pizza and a Chang Jiang in the same strip.) But inside La Z, as I've come to think of it, it's warm and inviting. I like how you can see the kitchen staff at work, grilling carne asada or assembling massive tortas, Mexican sandwiches that are, I swear, as big as Frisbees.
On my initial visits to La Z, I couldn't find a menu, so stuck to Mexican standards I figured they'd have. A carne asada (grilled steak) torta came on a crisp, crusty bun, with plenty of fresh avocado slices, tomatoes, jalapeño and cilantro. It tasted like the Mexican version of a Philly cheesesteak, and that was a good thing. Enchiladas featured rich shredded chicken and a very spicy green chile sauce, with big slices of avocado and lime. A lightly grilled chicken burrito was a little disappointing, the chicken tender but bland, the green chile sauce too hot to bring out the mix of flavors.
Subsequently, I discovered the menu - and saw La Z's roster of Honduran and Salvadoran dishes. Start with pupusas, Salvadoran cornmeal pancakes (supposedly for breakfast, but made to order any time, if you ask). The pupusa is made from a masa harina dough, stuffed with cheese, beans or pork. I watched while one of the cooks scooped out a handful of dough, patted it into a sphere, threw in some shredded cheese, squeezed some bean filling out of a tube, flattened the whole thing and set it on the griddle.
While the filling was nothing special (I'd skip the beans), the cornmeal patty was super-crisp and best when combined with the traditional curtido, a sharp, vinegary cabbage slaw with onions and a few hot red peppers in the mix. Curtido is sometimes described as a Salvadoran kimchi, but this version was neither as spicy nor as pickled as kimchi. It's all topped off with a spicy-hot salsa roja. One pupusa with a generous serving of slaw is just $2 (and they're dense, so one pupusa may be all you need). While I doubt these are North America's most stellar pupusas, they're a decent starter option. This is also, I believe, the closest Madison comes to having a pupusería. Empanadas, tamales, yuca with fried pork, and a plantain, eggs and beans platter round out the Salvadoran breakfast menu.
A number of shrimp dishes are filed under "Honduran." A shrimp ceviche isn't, technically, ceviche - it appeared to be made with precooked shrimp with lime squeezed on just before serving, but the generous side of fresh avocado and the lime/cilantro dressing made it likable anyway, especially in its $3 tostada version.
Flan and a sweet 'n' soggy tres leches cake come from a bakery in Delavan.
A modest dine-in area with booths and a flat-screen television is shoehorned into a corner, but takeout is perfectly acceptable. So far, La Z has delivered some hits and some misses, but it's good enough, convenient enough and cheap enough to have me making repeat trips to try everything on the menu.