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Tiny Salvadorian corner shop Marlin Pupuseria y Deli raises the bar 

Marlin Pupuseria y Deli

2042 Ayrsley Town Blvd. 704-900-2343. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

In the mix of Latino cuisines, small countries tend to get short shrift. Hondurans get frustrated explaining the flatness of their enchilada when it's compared to the rolled cylinders of Mexico. For El Salvador, the giant and popular cuisines of Mexico to the north and the Caribbean to the east can confuse diners, especially when the same word is used to describe very different dishes.

The Salvadoran quesadilla is an example of this. In El Salvador, a quesadilla is a round, thin, sweet dessert cake made with Salvadorian queso fresco — a farmers-type cheese — and sprinkled with sesame seeds. This is served warm and accompanies coffee well.

You can get homemade Salvadorian quesadillas at Marlin Pupuseria y Deli. Typically, pupuserias are little more than a hole in the wall in Latino-dominated neighborhoods. Not so here. Marlin is a cute corner shop in Ayrsley, in southwest Charlotte, situated in a building of mixed colorful hues and Bahama shutters. Marlin is tiny: only three booths and a few more tables. Gladys Cruz, a Salvadoran-American, and her daughters Azucana and Marlin own the store.

The heart of any Salvadorian kitchen is the pupusa — a thick hand-sized disk of corn flour usually stuffed with meat or cheese. The pupusa is similar in thickness to some South American arepas. Some shops produce pupusas in a tortilla press, but not here. In the kitchen, eponymous owner Marlin is an expert in the fine craft of making pupusas. Quickly, she slaps a handful of dough into one palm while developing a pouch with the other hand. She then stuffs the interior with shredded cheese and almost as quickly seals the dough, pinching off any extra. Then she pats the dough back and forth between her moving hands and rounds the edges all the while talking to customers at the counter. When she finishes, the newly formed pupusa is popped onto the grill, where it puffs and reveals a golden brown exterior when flipped.

Steam and oozing cheese spilled onto the plate when I cut into the pupusa. In El Salvador, pupusas are finger foods, but I like to cut into mine and fill it with a spoonful of curtido, a slightly fermented cabbage slaw made with carrots and slices of jalapeños. Marlin's pupusas are terrific.

Marlin offers other Salvadorian treats. Tamales are wrapped in banana leaves, which give these tamales an intensity not found in corn husk-wrapped tamales. Additionally, Marlin makes Salvadorian pasteles, a crispy small empanada tinted red with achiote and stuffed with a precooked chicken and potato mixture. These are also served with curtido.

While these Salvadorian treats are on the appetizer side of the menu, the main dishes at this deli are American-styled salads, soups and sandwiches, including deli meat clubs, wraps and both tuna and chicken salad. The signature sandwich is a grilled chicken breast with slices of avocado, bacon and Swiss cheese with a tomato aïoli on Texas toast. Even better is the Salvadorian sandwich in which the chicken is marinated in a spicy mix. This sandwich is finished with chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and salsa.

While the Salvadorian food is first-rate and inexpensive (pupusas are $1.50), service is dependent on how busy the kitchen is since the cashier, server or line cook may also be your server. But the wait is worth it if you go for the Salvadorian treats.

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