Family Is the Secret Recipe in SF Woman’s Famous Pupusas

In many families, it’s common for recipes to get handed down through the generations. For Estrella Gonzalez and her family, recipes for tamales, pupusas and tostadas also come with a seat at the table of the food business. 

As the owner of Estrellita’s Snacks in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Gonzalez is carrying on her mother’s business legacy and at the same time passing it along to her own children. The recipes, the business sense, it all gets passed to the next generation. 

“My mother told me when I was young that this would all be for me in the future,” Gonzalez said. “So it was very important for me to follow and keep the culture alive.” 

Gonzalez learned to make pupusas from her mom Maria del Carmen Flores while growing up in her native El Salvador. Her mother learned the trade from her mother, selling El Salvadorian specialties along with fresh fruit doused with chile and salt on the streets. The family later moved to Mexico, learning to cook regional specialties and once again selling on the street to make a living. 

When Carmen Flores moved her family to San Francisco, she made her living making and packaging plantains and yucca chips to sell on the street. She called her business Estrellita’s Snacks. Gonzalez and her siblings grew up helping with her endeavors. 

“My mother was always a dreamer,” Gonzalez said. “She always wanted her children to have something to fall back on coming to the U.S.” 

Carmen Flores joined the incubator program for La Cocina, a nonprofit group that helps immigrant and women of color start their own businesses. She’d planned to move into the group’s new marketplace in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin. But she fell ill as the pandemic delayed the opening of La Cocina’s Marketplace. 

When it finally opened in 2021, it was now her daughter Gonzalez at the head of the business, carefully hand forming thousands of pupusas while learning the ins and outs of running a professional food operation. She considers it a tribute to her mother, who is slowly recovering from her illness. 

“So that’s why it’s very important that everybody knows we don’t let the business die because that would be like letting her dream die,” Gonzalez said, sitting at her marketplace kiosk.

Dreams got complicated as the pandemic shut down life in San Francisco, thwarting plans and derailing aspirations. But one thing clicked into high gear: food delivery. Estrellita’s Snacks went into overdrive, preparing some 10,000 handmade pupusas a week. 

Gonzalez never shied away from the hard work or long hours. These days when she’s not behind the grill of her kiosk, she can be found making pupusas and tamales at many of the city’s farmer’s markets. 

“My mom, she wakes up super early in the morning and she puts in a lot of hours,” said son Angel Gonzalez. “Sometimes she’ll come home 11 at night.” 

Angel now works alongside his mother in the La Cocina kiosk. A sister is going to business school. Gonzalez’s twin sons also work in Estrellita’s Snacks on the weekends. To Gonzalez, family is the secret ingredient in her traditional El Salvadorian recipes, which now have legions of fans.  

“I’m very joyful about it, I get very emotional about it when customers come back and tell me that the pupusas are the best that they’ve had,” she said. “I always keep in mind that I have to cook with an open heart like I’m making it for myself or my kids.” 

Gonzalez aims to expand her business, to pass on to her kids the same possibilities she got from her own mother, while at the same time spreading her love of her native El Salvadorian heritage.  

“I was always taught as a young girl if you want to get ahead, you can get ahead, and that language isn’t a barrier because hard work always pays off,” Gonzalez said.

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