An old adage says, "Never eat at a place called 'Mom's,' " which of course is not a snipe at actual mothers, but the folly of marketing a restaurant as somehow capable of channeling the love, care, and multi-generational lore that the ideal of mom's cooking represents. Now, if you have an actual somebody's-mom in your kitchen, making food to order with skill and respect for ancestral traditions, you may be onto something wonderful. That's what I see going on at La Frontera, a humble Eastie storefront doing a long menu of Salvadoran and Mexican dishes, plus a few Yanqui offerings.
Pupusas are typically a leading quality indicator at such places, and La Frontera's are extraordinary: handmade and griddle-crisped, boasting real corn flavor. They feature copious options for the expected fillings: mashed black beans and cheese ($1.75) or minced chicharrón and cheese ($2). On the not-so-expected side are such fillings as zucchini ($1.75) or tilapia ($2), plus quality curtido (vinegary slaw) for topping. Salvadoran-style tacos ($2) are overstuffed with fine fillings of chicken, shredded roast beef, or diced beef tongue. Pollo estilo campero ($9) is a superb plate of fried chicken in a thick, crunchy batter, plus rice, salad, and tortillas on the side. But the one essential dish here is sopa de mariscos ($19), an enormous shellfish stew with half a small Maine lobster, half a big Jonah crab, three cherrystone clams, a few big shrimp, and a lot of sliced squid and tiny shrimp. This bounty sits in a golden broth based on shellfish stock, cream, and garlic, fantastic by itself, and loaded with broccoli, bell pepper, green beans, aromatics, and Asian vegetables (probably frozen, a rare shortcut here). The supplied nutcracker helps deconstruct the big crustaceans. Sides of seasoned rice and thick tortillas complete this stunning one-course meal.
The menu is diverse enough to please just about any crowd, with Salvadoran-style Italian dishes, a dozen other seafood entrées, gringo-friendly tortas, nachos, and burritos, even burgers, subs, pizza, and calzones. Breakfast plates are huge and traditional, like mild Salvadoran chorizo and eggs ($8) with sides of cheese, crema, fried sweet plantains, beans, avocado, and tortillas. Beverage options include tropical juices like coconut ($1.50) and marañon ($2), horchata ($2), and crisp Salvadoran lagers like Pilsener 100 ($3.50). The ambiance is typically modest: 30 seats, a jukebox that ranges around Latin America, telenovelas on the TV. Chances are your server and cashier will be that serious mom of a chef, too. Her fresh, heartfelt cooking is exactly the reason that exploring unheralded Eastie holes-in-the-wall like La Frontera can be so rewarding.
La Frontera, located at 290 Bennington Street in East Boston, is open from Monday to Friday, 11 am–11 pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 9 am–11 pm. Call 617.569.8600.