With summer construction in full swing, it’s easy to miss the blue banner swaying behind traffic cones at 2580 Fleur Drive. “NOW OPEN,” it reads in a collegiate font — appropriate for a building that was part of the AIB College of Business campus until the school closed in 2016.
Don’t let the roadwork deter you: On the back side of the building is the entrance to a new hidden gem. La Cuscatleca, a longtime favorite on Des Moines’ east side, has opened a second location.
The new place, La Cuscatleca South, started service on July 30 over the lunch hour in Suite 101 next to the Swift Properties LLC offices. The restaurant, owned by Marcial Leiva, has been a staple on the east side since opening on Hubbell Avenue in 2012. In 2019 it relocated a mile away to 1240 E. 14th St., now known as La Cuscatleca East.
Leiva emigrated in 1999 from El Salvador to the United States, where he has raised his family and built his business.
“We just wanted to be able to expand our customer base,” said Jaime Leiva, son of Marcial Leiva. “We have a lot of customers all over town, so it’s kind of easier for people to get to different places.”
The dining room retains much of its décor from its days as AIB College’s City View Diner, creating a Salvadoran-meets-1950s-Americana mash-up. There is ample seating for full-service dine-in customers in bright red diner booths, and relics including a jukebox and a Coca Cola neon sign remain.
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But the Leivas have updated the space with touches of their culture through music and art, and two central pillars are wrapped in alluring images of El Salvador’s natural beauty and cultural traditions. And though it might look like a good place for a hamburger and shake — they even have a burger on the menu — the rest of the food tells a different story.
La Cuscatleca serves a large and affordable selection of Salvadoran staples. Derived from Mesoamerican and Spanish cuisines, Salvadoran food features maize, pork and seafood. La Cuscatleca makes tamales and empanadas stuffed with seasoned meats and vegetables priced between $1.65 and $6.75.
Their entrée plates, served with tortillas, showcase Salvadoran spices and preparation. The Carne Asada plate comes with grilled steak, rice, beans and salad. They also serve a traditional Salvadoran breakfast.
“I would say it’s a blend of South American and Mexican cuisine,” said Leiva.
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The pupusa, the dish most commonly associated with Salvadoran cuisine, is La Cuscatleca’s claim to fame. Leiva describes it as a thick tortilla stuffed with cheese and various combinations of ingredients. Their most popular pupusa is the shredded pork and cheese served with curtido — a refreshing and crunchy pickled cabbage slaw.
New to the menu in the southside restaurant are the cheese and garlic pupusa and chicken and cheese pupusa.
To the north of the dining room is a patio with six picnic tables overlooking the lush Water Works Park and Grey’s Lake surrounding Fleur Drive.
“I think people are going to enjoy the view,” Leiva said.
La Cuscatleca South is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Elle Wignall covers dining for the Register. Reach her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @ElleWignallDMR.