This Salvadoran restaurant has perfected its creamy seafood soup

Cuscatlan is located at 3232 Steeles Ave W Unit 8, Vaughan.

Cuscatlan is located at 3232 Steeles Ave W Unit 8, Vaughan

The sopa de marisco at Cuscatlan is filled with shrimp, fleshy chunks of fish, blue crab and more. It is creamy with a hint of spice. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Suresh Doss: The story of this restaurant starts with Rafael and Reina Mejia. They are the husband and wife team behind the operation. They're both from the Santa Ana province of El Salvador and they were neighbours so they've known each other their entire lives. They migrated to Canada in the early 90s during the Salvadoran civil war.

They're both from big families, Rafael is from a family of 17 brothers and sisters and that's important because cooking has been a big part of their lives. Reina, meanwhile, spent years catering in Vaughan, cooking for family gatherings and parties. 

Opening a restaurant wasn't a dream when they first moved to Canada, but it grew into one. Then in 2015, one of the few Salvadoran restaurants in the area, Cuscatlan, was up for sale. 

Ismaila Alfa: So this is when they took over the space? 

Suresh Doss: Yes, and they kept the name even though their hometown is two hours away from Cucatlan. Prior to Reina and Rafael's ownership, it was not a very memorable restaurant. It was just okay, in my opinion. But what the couple has done in the last six years now is inject a lot of love and family culinary history into the restaurant. I've visited Cuscatlan a number of times now, but I've never managed to sit down for a meal.

Rafael and Reina Mejia are the husband-and-wife team behind Cuscatlan in Vaughan. They both grew up in the Santa Ana province of El Salvador and were neighbours, so they've known each other their entire lives. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila Alfa: It's always packed? 

Suresh Doss: Exactly. It's almost always packed, for dinner. This is a place where as soon as you walk in, the music pulls you into a celebratory mood. The kitchen is not open, but the ceilings are tall, so the sounds of the busy kitchen really carry into the dining room. You hear a lot of laughing and joking. Then there's the waves of aromas as everything is cooked, prepping you for the impending feast. 

The Revuelta pupasas come with a cabbage salad and salsa to dip. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Honestly, it was a very jovial place. And I'm talking as the guy standing in the corner waiting 15 minutes for his takeout. 

Ismaila Alfa: What is the menu like? 

Suresh Doss: Both Rafael and Reina have ownership over the menu but Reina is the one in the kitchen every day. And she's assisted by women from Mexico, Nicaragua. When I asked her what inspires her cooking, she had a great story to share.

The tamales at Cuscatlan come highly recommended. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

"We come from a place with coffee plantations and every year many people came to pick the coffee, when the coffee is ripe ... We used to cook for so many people, to sell the food. My mother used to make ... the plates to sell. I was 12, that's how we learned to cook."

Ismaila Alfa: So the cuisine is all El Salvadorian?

The sourness of the shrimp ceviche offers a refreshing taste. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Suresh Doss: El Salvadorian and more. Here's Rafael explaining it.
"It's Latin American because we use food from Colombia, we use food from Mexico.We have a blend of different kinds of food but the favourite is El Salvadorian.

Ismaila Alfa: This is exciting, so they must have a wide range of dishes. 

Suresh Doss: They do, and Ismaila, this might sound hyperbolic but  I can't find a single dish on the menu that I don't like. And I think the regulars that have been going to Cuscatlan will agree. 

The seafood soup has a creamy base. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila Alfa: Tell me about the favourites. 

Suresh Doss: We can start with revuelta, the pupusas, these thick corn tortillas that are stuffed with a filling; chicken, beef. It's a classic Salvadorian meal. They are wonderful here. They come with a cabbage salad and some Salsa to dip. 

If you're a fan of ceviches, there is also a wonderfully bright shrimp ceviche here. There is a lot of acidity in this bowl and the shrimp is really plump . The sourness is very refreshing.

You should also try the tamales — masa, seasoned corn meal steamed in banana leaves. You can get it alongside some sour cream, or you can get the one stuffed with chicken, potatoes, chickpeas and peppers. Ismaila, get that with one of the sopa, the soups on the menu.

Ismaila Alfa: Which do you recommend?

Suresh Doss: Again, my absolutely favourite is the sopa de marisco. It is this unbelievable seafood soup. It has shrimp, fleshy chunks of fish, and even some blue crab. It is sublime, wonderfully creamy with whispers of spice. 

The carne guisada is a slow cooked beef stew that sticks to the back of the spoon. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

I've also recently tried the carne guisada. This is a Latin American beef stew with many variations. Reina's tastes like it has influences from both El Salvador and Mexico.

Picture chunks of beef slow cooked with potatoes and carrots, to the point where it easily succumbs to the back of your spoon. It's served with a mound of rice and salad, but the sauce from the stew just puddles around everything. It's a dish that gets better with each spoonful, as the sauce finds its way through the plate. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.