Panuchos, Hints and Family Drama


Many years ago, after months of swearing and cursing to the powers that be, I was graciously offered an assistant. My work load had become too unmanageable and it was deemed a good time to bring on someone to help. After a few basic interviews I decided on a lovely girl by the name of Maria*. Full of smiles, Maria and I developed an immediate rapport and she was a great employee– when we worked, that is. We spent much of our time chatting in Spanish (mine broken, thank you very much) while I listened to tales of her family that rivaled any overly dramatic novela on television. There were disappearing family members who reappeared in strange places with new names, the closeted gay nephew who kept his nightly drag performances hidden from the family, the lonely and nosey spinster aunt, a stoic and overbearing Catholic mother who ran the show, numeous forbidden loves and a cast of colorful characters that added to the already unreal familial history. I loved hearing about her family.

I always looked forward to seeing her every morning. I had so many questions!  How could her aunt not notice her nephew’s perfectly plucked eyebrows and stained lips without being suspicious? Did her cousin really work for the government as a mercenary before becoming a baker? Was the family home back in El Salvador as beautiful as the photos she shared with me and how soon could I visit? Many times her tales would spill over into our lunch hour, where we’d continue them over plates of pupusas piled high with cortido. Before meeting her I never really explored Salvadorian food, but she seemed to know every cafe and pupuseria in the Southland. It didn’t take long to realize how much I loved pupusas, those little cheese- and meat-filled tortillas that are served with a vinegar cabbage slaw on top. Do you ever have those moments when you discover someone or something exists that you wish you knew about sooner?  That was my experience with Maria and pupusas.

Fast forward to last month. I had a freelance job shooting some comida Yucateca and other than what I’ve ordered in a restaurant or learned from Rick Bayless I shamefully don’t know too much about it.  I’ve never been to the Yucatan (hint hint, my dearest Adam!) and my family history is Northern Mexico with a cuisine all its own. Of course that opened a floodgate to my obsessive ways and I had to research more so that I would feel comfortable with it and wouldn’t you know I stumbled onto Panuchos, a cousin to the Central American pupusas. Crunchy corn tortillas are fried with a layer of smooth black beans inside and topped with various condiments like tomatoes, lime wedges, pickled onions or avocados. They’re usually antojitos meaning appetizers or small snacks and they’re utterly heavenly and easy to eat. They all but disappeared immediately–always a good sign if you ask me.  And while it was fantastic discovering all the other major dishes of the Yucatan, panuchos have become a favorite at our house.



This recipe comes from two of my favorite ladies, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken. They’re delightful gals and have great restaurants here in Los Angeles. I’ve explored a few panucho recipes and really dig this one. Also, if you’re near a Latin market you may find masa harina already made in dough form; it saves some time. And if you don’t want to go through the effort of making black beans you can use a high quality canned version.

2 cups finely ground masa harina
1 3/8 cups cold water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup refried black beans, pureed
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2 cups shredded roasted chicken
1 cup roasted tomato salsa
1 cup picked red onions, see recipe
1 cup avocado, peeled, seeded and sliced


In a large bowl combine first three ingredients and stir until smooth. The dough should be slightly sticky and form a ball when pressed together. To test, flatten a small piece of dough between your palms. If the edges crack, add water to the dough, a tablespoon at a time, until a test piece does not crack.

Divide the masa into 12 pieces and form each into a ball.  Press or roll each into a 4-inch circle.  Heat a dry cast-iron skillet or griddle over medium-high heat and cook the tortillas.  When cool enough to handle, pick up each puffed tortilla and make a 1 1/2-inch slit about 1/4-inch from the edge to make a pocket, being careful not to cut all the way through the tortilla.  Puree the refried black beans and stuff 2 teaspoons of the bean puree in each pocket.  Flatten to seal and spread the beans evenly.  Reserve the stuffed tortillas and cover with a barely damp cloth.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over high heat.  Fry the stuffed tortillas in batches, adding more oil as necessary, until they are a little crisp around the edges but still pliable.  Drain on paper towels.  Then place on a tray and keep warm in a 200 degree oven.
Heat the chicken in a small pan over low heat.  Remove the tray of panuchos from the oven.  Top each with a tablespoon salsa. Sprinkle on the chicken and pickled red onions and top each with a small avocado slice.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves six.

For the Yucatan Pickled Red Onions:
This recipe comes from Epicurious and is so simple. I wouldn’t skip it as the vinegary onions are perfect with the fried corn flavor of the panucho. Plus they turn a very pretty shade of pink. Probably like Maria’s cousin’s lipstick.

2 red onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup orange juice
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano or thyme
salt and pepper to taste


Place onions in a saucepan, add water to cover, bring to a boil and remove from heat. Drain and rinse in cold water to stop the cooking process. Place the onions in a non-reactive container with the remaining ingredients and allow to sit for several hours before serving. They keep up to one week in the refrigerator.

Makes about 3 cups.


*Maria is not her real name. Since I’ve blabbed on and on about her personal life I figured I’d at least change her name to protect what little privacy I’ve left her. And also, hopefully soon, I’ll be able to learn all about the food of the Yucatán in Mérida, Mexico. Not that I’d ever pressure my husband into taking me somewhere through something public like a blog or anything.

Secret Message To My Partner : Adam my dear I am going to wake you up every day at 5:05am with new and important bits of information about Mérida and I will not stop until we visit. Consider yourself warned.


  1. says

    I wonder what “Maria” is doing today? I love pupusas and discovered them at an El Salvadoran restaurant in Kingston, New York. They are the ultimate bar food. I agree, you definitely need a little pickled something on top. What’s the drink lingering in the background? A mojito? Looks good, whatever it is.

  2. says

    What a fun story! Even better, I haven’t gotten pickled red onions just right yet, and I’m wondering if this recipe will do the trick. There’s nothing more fun to have in the fridge for … whatever. I can barely think of dish they don’t agree with.

  3. says

    Matt, if you go to Merida…you MUST look up David from Los Dos Yucatan cooking school. (Bonus points if you stay in his *#&$&% amazing house – only 2 of the most beautiful rooms ever and the extra TLC from David. I can’t think of a better way to see Merida.)

    David is a Yucatan food geek. He and his boyfriend moved drom NYC and rennovated Los Dos. David conducts tours of the market and outlying areas. Reasearch has driven him to go find little old grandmas to cook with for days, research the history of the Yucatan (Lebanese in Mexico???),etc. It’s a true passion of his and I took a 3 day class for Day of the Dead a couple years ago. I couldn’t have been more impressed.

    I’d love, love, love to see a city I know so well through the lense of your camera. :)

    Here’s a link to Los Dos:

  4. says

    I’m assuming that this isn’t bad… the only thing that’s comparable to the feeling I get when I kiss my man is when I look at pictures of food like this! I just got that flash when I took one look at these Panuchos. We are definitely going to whip these up.
    I’ve been all over the Yucatan and want to take my guy there – he would love Los Dos – thanks for sharing this! There are so many wonderful towns all over the Yucatan that are reeeaaaal. Let us know if you head down there. I’ve got lots of little places to tell you about.

  5. says

    I still dream about the penuchos (country bumpkin cousin’s of your Penuchos) that I ate in a parking lot just outside of Aventuras. Rough and ready, unlike your glamourous version, they were topped with a mindblowing habanero/vinegar combo that was painfully addictive.

    Courtesy of you I can now try to make them at home…

    Thanks for your beautiful pictures, great stories and mouthwatering recipes!

  6. Anne M. says

    This is torture. It is 16:00 Norwegian time (read: norwegian dinner time), and I am drooling all over my desk. It sounds mmMMM!

    Pressuring husbands to do things through a public web is a valid mean if it results to a posibility of trying new food and seaing new places.

  7. says

    Something unfair and strange: I’ve still never had pupusas in L.A. nearly as good as those at the Pupuseria Divino Corazon in New Orleans, which is decorated as ridiculously as its name promises.

  8. says

    Matt – What I loved about living in LA was the great intersection of cultures, those that would be ‘exotic’ by New Zealand standards, like Mexican and Armenian. I ate like a pig whilst living in the US, wanting to savor as much as I could. Rick Bayless is an interesting source from which to learn, but I’m sure nothing is better than going to Yucatan itself. Thanks for providing the little food trip, even if it is through Feniger, Milliken, and Epicurious. Maybe you should have another blog the serializes Maria’s life. That would be good reading at lunchtime while munching on panuchos!

  9. says

    I used to love the Two Hot Tamales cooking show on the Food Network, back in the day! I am going to make this recipe… thanks for passing it on!

  10. says

    I just returned from a vacation in Mexico. We had some panuchos and salbutes (one has beans the other doesn’t, right?) after a long day of visiting Valladolid, the Cenote X’Keken (cave with a lake) and Chichen Itza. We (the family) really wanted to eat an overpriced, but air conditioned standard Mexican restaurant, but my friend and guide insisted on the little hole in the wall place across the street because they had comida Yucateca.

    I’m really glad we went for the panuchos. Our guide described them like tostadas, but I thought of them more like sopes, but thinner. It was the perfect food after a great day in Yucatan.

  11. MJ says

    Hi, Matt, love your blog and just wanted to comment that the panuchos that i’ve always eaten in Yucatán and Mexico City (where i live, was born and work as a chef) have a topping of cochinita pibil and those pickled onions, some habanero chile and nothing more. Nice pictures, they look great, but a little odd, something between a panucho and a tostada from central Mexico.

  12. says


    I just stumbled across your blog and fell a little bit in love! I’m vegetarian, but I cannot wait to try this recipe – it’s fresh, fun and sounds way flavorful (plus the pics are outstanding).


  13. Scott Lindgren says

    Well, the panuchos I had in LA had shredded turkey, not chicken, and a really great, thin, colorless habanero salsa. Almost a habanero broth. I wanna try making them at home. I could take a half dozen of these on board with no impact.
    -Scott Lindgren, Los Angeles the Damned

  14. Annie says

    Hey Matt!

    Nice Blog!…you need to come check out my family’s place! We are “La Flor de Yucatan” and we specialize in the Mayan cuisine. You’re not too far from us. We’re in Downtown L.A. Come by on a weekend and you can try out some of our other delicious dishes (including Panuchos and Salbutes).

    For those who are interested in trying some other delicious dishes pay us a visit or give us a call. Also, those who miss their home in Yucatan, we will make you feel like you were back. We have everything from Relleno Negro, to Cochinita (marinated pork), Morcilla (Moronga)..etc… and we also carry other goodies straight from Yucatan!

    Unfortunately our website is under construction, but we can be reached at and at (213) 748-6090. For english however call Marc (my brother, and food consultant) at (661) 917-3816. Hope to see ya!

  15. says

    Hola Matt. LOVE the blog and I’m so glad to have found it while searching for a recipe for pickled onions to go on top of the cochinita pibil I’m making for dinner.

    I completely agree with the previous posts about David Sterling and his fabulous cooking classes at Los Dos in Merida. Go!! Now!!

    No, wait…better yet, come with me in December! I lead tours to Mexico and I have a GREAT trip to Merida in December that you’d love. Our day with David is one of the high points. Tell that husband of yours to sign you up!

    Okay, back to the pork…

  16. Lacey says

    Hey! I love panuchos, and I have actually been to Merida and had them! I stayed for 4 days, and my host family was amazing. My host sister took me out with her friends every evening and the 4 of us ate at a resturant called Rositas near the Gran Plaza on my last night there. They ordered Panuchos for me with Orchata to drink. It was my favorite meal that I ate in entire mexico…except the Cochinilla that my host mother made for me!

  17. ashalea says

    My boyfriend is from yucatan and loves this recipe I make them for him as often as I can and you r so rite can’t have them without the onions just dosent taste the same if you have any other recipes from yucatan plz let me know I love to cook and am interested in new things

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