Thank goodness Puerta Vieja's co-owners, Salvadoran couple, Hilcia and Jose Garcia, take absolutely zero culinary cues from their timid interior decorating sense. Because considering the 3-months-old Salvadoran-Tex-Mex eatery in Keller hasn't put up a single ornament on its otherwise attractive peach-colored walls -- well, that's a minimalist design aesthetic that might signal equally unassertive cooking.
Thankfully, Puerta Vieja's menu leans in the opposite direction, towards confident flavorings and subtle spiciness that Hilcia Garcia has cleverly imported from her family's Salvadoran larder.
The Garcias, who this year are celebrating 17 years in Texas and 13 years at the helm of El Salvador, an Irving fixture of Salvadoran cooking, enthusiastically reflect their native country's love of all things derived from the Pacific. Puerta Vieja's menu is studded with all manner of gilled and shell creatures -- from tilapia and at least three kinds of ceviche, to jumbo shrimp -- with lobster and especially mussels appearing in several of its marquee dishes.
Showing off its versatility, the Garcias' menu also offers plenty of Mexican dishes, where steak and chicken sizzle in fajitas, or in a perfectly turned-out taco. And the Garcias are happy to produce a full-on burrito dinner for those hankering for that Tex-Mex classic.
But the main reason to seek out Puerta Vieja, which sits between its Carvel Ice Cream and Bakery and Bear Creek Running Co. strip mall neighbors, is for its genuine Salvadoran food. And there may be no better Salvadoran small plate overview than the platillo tipico ($9.99). So many different flavors and textures pinball across the palate, from the steak-fry-thick yucca pieces and the bananas Foster-like sweetness of the fried plantains, to the dish's most complex member: the pupusa, a.k.a. the Salvadoran taco. Its add-ons -- coleslaw and an Adobo-like sauce full of pureed chiles, garlic, tomatoes, and cilantro -- lend it uncommon complexity.
The next dish, labeled as a lobster soup or sopa de mariscos con langosta ($15.99), risks overshadowing the entire meal. This soup, based on a family recipe, is essentially what might happen if a buttoned-up French bouillabaisse went out on a blind date with the Sofia Vergara of Central American flavorings.
Au revoir French restraint and hola to a lusty broth that shares its pale orange color with the magnum claw and tail sections of a boiled lobster. But like the iceberg that smacked the Titanic, you only spy the tip of those humongous lobster pieces. Submerged under-broth is the rest of that lobster, plus a Sea World of black-shelled mussels, chunks of flaky catfish, tail-on shrimp and mini-chunks of lump crab. A whole egg bobs around for more protein pleasure.
I can't imagine another fish soup between here and Marseille, or San Salvador, holding a candle to this sopa.
Honestly, this diva of a soup makes the other entrees sampled, though all perfectly fine, pale in comparison.
I can't quibble with the Tex-Mex spinach and cheese enchilada, ($9.99) enveloped in a pleasantly tangy sour cream sauce, or a Salvadoran paella ($11.99) stocked with plenty of cooked shrimp, mussels, tasty squid and octopus, and zesty coins of chorizo.
Nor could I find any fault with the luxuriant cream sauce elevating humble chicken slices in the pollo encremado ($11.99).
As if snapping up a last-minute Salvadoran souvenir at the airport, the sopaipillas ($2.99) - pillows of fried, airy, sugar-studded dough - constitute an ideal conclusion to an authentically hearty Salvadoran meal.
Now if Puerta Vieja (or "old door" in Spanish) could just grab a hammer, some hooks and add some old or new art to its interior, then it could truly lay claim to offering one of the most satisfying Central American dining experiences in Tarrant County.