At the heart of Big Grandma’s Kitchen is a pupusa recipe that’s made its way from El Salvador to Los Angeles through three generations of grandmas. Now in the hands of Chef Guillermo Lima, the family recipe for these savory stuffed corncakes has ventured beyond the home kitchen to local farmers markets and events.
“This recipe comes from my great-grandmothers. It goes way back,” said Chef Lima while manning his regular station at the Altadena Farmers Market. “I was lucky enough that my mom was able to show me, and we’re very happy to pass it on to my daughter Sophia. The name Big Grandma’s, it’s her grandma.”
Though Chef Lima has added some of his own twists, his mother Sylvia still gives the food her stamp of approval, having once managed a pupuseria with her sister in El Salvador where they made everything from scratch.
For Big Grandma’s Kitchen, making pupusas from scratch involves a lot of time and multitasking to prepare each element, from the masa dough to the variety of fillings: cheese, asada, chorizo, beans, spinach, or jalapeno. Popular specialty pupusas include the “loroco,” which combines cheese with an edible green flower bud from Central America, and the “revueltas,” stuffed with pork, beans, and cheese.
“It’s a whole 8 to 10-hour process that I do with just the beans. I soak them, I cook them, boil them, grind them down. The masa, we let sit for a couple of hours,” Chef Lima described. “They’re so hard to make. And it takes a lot of practice to make them round, to stuff them.”
While pupusas can often look uniformly the same with fillings well hidden in a thick blanket of masa, Big Grandma’s Kitchen doesn’t shy away from showing off what’s inside. Chef Lima intentionally uses less masa, so that each pupusa reveals the light and dark shades of its contents, some of which peek out through the edges after being flipped over and over on a flat iron griddle.
“When I ball them up, I take off the excess masa. That way when you bite it, all you get is flavor,” he explained. “That’s my view of my pupusas. That’s what I like. That’s why I’m very picky of how I do my pupusas.”
Inside his tented makeshift kitchen at the farmers market, Chef Lima applies the skills he learned both from his mother and from his years working on food trucks and in restaurants. He deftly assembles and shapes each pupusa to order, watching over the grill and flipping the pupusas with precise timing to prevent the masa from cracking. His dexterity and focus while cooking has fittingly earned him the nickname Pupusa Ninja.
As his sister, Syl Lima, manages the orders that come in, she marvels at how he hustles behind the scenes. “He’s got magic hands. He’s really good at what he does, and he loves it. And it shows in the food,” she said.
Making the pupusas to order ensures that you experience them at their best, straight off the grill—hot and crispy on the outside, steamy and gooey on the inside. The final dish is finished with a tangy topping of curtido, a pickled slaw which Chef Lima makes with purple cabbage instead of the traditional white cabbage for a vibrant visual contrast. A mild, red tomato salsa made from scratch adds another splash of flavor. “Traditionally, Salvadorian food is not spicy at all. That way the kids can enjoy it, and everybody can eat it,” he said.
Chef Lima’s flair for Salvadoran cuisine doesn’t stop at the pupusas. An order of Yuca Con Chicharron is a surprisingly substantial plate loaded with plump wedges of fried yuca and meaty chunks of fried pork. He boils the tropical tubers beforehand and fries them to order, giving the yuca a much fluffier inner texture than french fries, with an extra crispy outer layer.
Between savory bites of pupusa or yuca, you can enjoy refreshing sips from a cup of ensalada, a Salvadoran fruit juice made from chopped pineapple, mango, and apples. The diced fruits floating in your cup hint at the freshness and natural sweetness of the housemade beverage.
For a desserty course, the Platanos Fritos is an addictive dish of plantains, slowly caramelized to bring out the mild flavor of bananas with starchy, crisped edges. Big Grandma’s Kitchen offers two dipping sauces, a savory cream and a cinnamon drizzle, which Chef Lima specifically made to cater to the tastes of picky kids, “Because if the kids are going to eat it, the parents are going to eat it.”
Though Big Grandma’s Kitchen started vending regularly at public venues this past summer, the business first began in 2017 out of Chef Lima’s home kitchen. Initially, friends and family would come to his house for pupusa lunches every other Sunday afternoon. As word spread about the home cooked meals, nearby foodies started joining the weekend gatherings, which soon turned the Lima’s house into weekly a pop-up eatery. Now that they’ve successfully moved the business out of their house, Chef Lima aims to book larger events like the LA Food Fest, which they attended this year at Santa Anita Park.
“It’s been a great journey since we started. People have been showing us amazing love, a lot of support, a lot of good vibes,” Chef Lima said. “This is not a job for me. It’s a passion. It’s a great feeling, and that’s what keeps me going.”
You can find Big Grandma’s Kitchen in an extra wide booth at the Altadena Farmers Market on Wednesdays, where a towering sail waving the word “pupusas” will guide you to their spot. They also regularly attend the monthly Latino market event Molcajete Dominguero in downtown Los Angeles. For updates on upcoming special engagements and menu items, click their Foodzooka profile below and follow Big Grandma’s Kitchen on social media.