It is surprisingly rare to find a restaurant whose name perfectly describes it, but that is the case with Diner Latino, a cozy little pupusaria on a Highlandtown street corner. The place was open seven days a week, 24 hours a day—as a true diner should be—until earlier this year, when nearby construction forced the owner to temporarily reduce the hours.
The large menu is jammed not with the eggs, short stacks, and meatloaf of classic American diners, but with an equally classic menu of the traditional comfort food of Latin America: pupusas, burritos, tacos, baleadas, and five iterations of “desayuno,” or breakfast. It is a diner, so there is some overlap: a permanent jug of hot coffee, which is served in painted ceramic mugs and is surprisingly strong and good, as well as bakery items under glass on the counter.
Maria Alvarado, who is from Ilobasco, a small city northeast of El Salvador’s capital of San Salvador, came to this country in 1998 and opened Diner Latino in 2015. She opened a second location in Middle River in 2019, with a similar menu of dishes from her native country, as well as Honduras and Mexico. The idea for a diner made sense, Alvarado says, as folks in the neighborhood were hungry in the early morning, too. So there are the desayunos, massive plates of various combinations of eggs, fried plantains, beans, beef and peppers, salsa, crema, avocados, rice, pork chops, and tortillas.
There are more plates, like the Salvadoreño and the Hondureño, with variants of desayuno pegged to their respective countries. There are the baleadas, a Honduran version of a quesadilla, a flour tortilla jammed with fillings. There are excellent tacos, both Mexican and Honduran, on house-made tortillas; tajadas, or plantains that are fried and loaded with toppings; and an assortment of other entrees, like ceviche, whole fried mojarra fish, and soups.
To wash it all down, there are aguas frescas, and, best of all, atole, the hot, sweet, milky masa drink.
But you are here for the pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador, thick griddled corn cakes filled with beans and cheese, pork, chicken, beef, jalapeños, and loroco, a flowering vine native to Central America that tastes vaguely of asparagus and is a traditional pupusa filling. The pupusas are made-to-order and served with curtido, the thick slaw sluiced with a mild salsa that is their traditional accompaniment.
These are deeply addictive things, crisped masa around a hot center of melted cheese and oozy mashed beans and whatever else you choose to embed in them. The curtido supplies a cool antidote, the crunch and acid of the slaw a perfect balance. And Alvarado has gone a step further, with something she calls a pupusa loca, or crazy pupusa: a 10-inch masterwork whose burnished exterior hides all the fillings.
“It’s my favorite,” says Alvarado, whose recipe it is as well. “It’s everything.”
The pupusa loca arrives hot from the griddle, quartered on a plate it nearly overflows, and topped in the center with the bowl of slaw like a paperweight. A warning that it takes some time to create this, so maybe get a coffee refill while you wait. Or just eat breakfast first.
DINER LATINO: 3928 Eastern Ave., 410-276-1481. HOURS: Mon.-Wed., 8 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Thurs.-Sun. 8 a.m.-3 a.m. PRICES: Pupusas: $2.50-9.95; breakfast: $6.95-10.95; tacos, soups, and entrees: $3-19.95