Every night around 6 or so, the women of Panchita's Pupuseria set up an outdoor grill on 16th Street.
Grease, spattering for years, has fogged the grill's glass, and bins beside it are heaped with mounds of dough freckled with basil, mushrooms, black beans or jalapeno.
When the cook top is hot enough, the woman on duty pinches and molds handfuls of the dough – in the mechanically same exact way every time – and slaps them on the grill, flipping and browning them until melted cheese leaks from their edges.
Then she slides them onto a plate, delivering them to commuters in line about to head home, or later, to the bleary-eyed, drunken bar crowd, the people on the street who can't will themselves home just yet. Not without a third dinner.
At $3 each, the pupusas have a loyal following. They are superb food for drunks: cheesy, foldable and filled with meat.
But, slathered in tomato-based hot sauce and vinegar-soaked cabbage (supplied on each table in industrial quantities), these pupusas are even better eaten when sober, with a knife and fork.
The vinegar slaw and hot sauce are reliably good companions – as long as one doesn't overdo it – for a corn dough pancake made of cheese and meat.
The fillings (they're listed on an exuberant sign) always are the same: Pork (fried and shredded), black beans (boiled, seasoned and smashed), beef, basil, spinach, mushrooms or garlic.
The form is loyal to the Salvadoran tradition, but some of the fillings are modified. Take the loroco, which traditionally refers to long green buds of a Central American vine. Here, it means squash blossoms. (They're swamped in Monterey jack and corn dough, and it's kind of hard to tell the difference.)
I love the chipotle pupusas most. Infused by threads of soft, smoked chili, they have a boldness the others don't, and seem as though they actually were on fire at some point.
The garlic and mushroom pupusas are predictably good, never shy with the garlic.
Pillowy soft and generous, the pork pupusas, filled with shreds of simply fried, peppered meat, are excellent. The basil is a mellow choice, and the chicken is standard issue.
Most important: Pupuseria Panchita is never a gamble, and it's no wonder: Doris Campos has been making pupusas for 30 years.
That's a long time to hone a single recipe, and it didn't come from nowhere. When Campos opened Panchita's, named for her grandmother, she brought what she knew from Chirilagua, the mountain-top province in El Salvador she left not long before.
She hasn't strayed from her roots. A photo of the family cow in Chirilagua is on the wall, and it's not uncommon to see family manning the pans or her niece working the register at Panchita's.
When so much of the Mission feels up for grabs, places like Panchita's feel endangered. I've started ordering more and more pupusas each time I go, the way my mother used to pillage the bottled water aisle at Dominick's before tornado season in Chicago.
Still, for the time being Panchita's is a big rock, a stronghold from a more democratic time that, despite the pace of change, fulfills our (or my) existential need for a delicious, doughy, $3 dinner. We can count on that, right? Right?
Location: 3091 16th St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 431-4232
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m. to midnight Sundays
Suggested dishes: Chipotle pupusa ($3), mushroom and garlic pupusa ($3)
Price range: $3
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major