As surely as a crocheted cupcake or a photo of a bear nuzzling with a kitten, Pilar’s Tamale Shop is calculated to charm. Everything about the compact storefront eatery, from its brightly colored walls to its smiling crew of staffers, seems designed to make foodies melt–assuming their knees haven’t already buckled at the sight of a menu generously sprinkled with the words free-range, all-natural, grass-fed, and organic.

Owner Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers has already wooed and won a huge contingent of Ann Arbor eaters who first became familiar with her Salvadoran specialties by seeing her tamale wagon around town–and, since last year, on a regular basis at the Farmers’ Market. Her new takeout-oriented restaurant on Liberty Street is her second go at a fixed location: Pilar’s Cafe was open briefly on South State Street a few years back.

But Nolasco-Rivers’ heart is clearly with her cart, which radiates an energetic, grassroots vibe. As she prepared to open her new cafe last November, she told “I am telling people who know me to pretend this is my cart.”

That doesn’t take too much imagination: Pilar’s Tamale Shop has a highly provisional feel. Nolasco-Rivers has hung onto shortcuts that really don’t belong in a restaurant with a roof and a door, and the food isn’t any better for it. While her more sentimental fans will no doubt adore the restaurant’s casual approach to cookery, newcomers are likely to be put off by its still-mobile mindset. On my first visit to Pilar’s, horchata was being ladled out of a giant lidless storage bin, and a toddler was running pell-mell through the kitchen.

More troublesome still, Pilar’s steams its tamales in parchment paper and foil instead of the traditional Salvadoran banana leaves. While not unheard of, it’s an expediency that undermines the whole tamale concept. I consulted food writer Claudia Alarcon–who’s writing a book about the history of tamales–for her opinion of the practice. “I have never seen them on parchment,” Alarcon told me. “I am sure that’s out of convenience.”

Salvadoran tamales tend to be a bit creamier than Mexican tamales, which are wrapped in less porous corn husks. Still, a banana leaf provides plenty of protection for the masa, which would otherwise deteriorate into a custardy, flavorless mush. That was the very problem afflicting all the tamales I sampled at Pilar’s.

In some cases, the stuffing was quite good. Pilar’s changing menu includes a dozen different tamales, both sweet and savory. The best varieties strike both notes: I especially liked a turkey tamale featuring rich dark meat and syrupy prunes. A strictly traditional tamale de puerco, made with well-seasoned pork, bits of green olives, and chunks of potatoes, was equally impressive.

But few of the stuffings could stand up to the spongy masa. A counterwoman plugged the black bean tamales as “ooey, gooey goodness,” but the mud puddle-gray concoction was well beyond my ooh-and-goo threshold, even without any detectable cheese. There was plenty of vividly orange cheese in my jalapeno-cheese tamale; this time, though, the promised peppers were aggravatingly omitted.

The most flavorful thing I found on my plate was the house red sauce, a smoky, peppery concoction that almost expunged my stuffing-related complaints. I slathered my tamales with the terrifically good sauce, so robust that Pilar’s could easily serve it as a soup.

I’d find Pilar’s flaws easier to forgive at lower prices. The restaurant charges $4 for a tamale, which seems shockingly high for such a simple dish–even one made with environmentally sensitive ingredients. (Evie’s Tamales in Detroit sells its unpedigreed version for $6.25 a dozen.) While Pilar’s is obviously putting out a very different product, $10 feels like a lot to pay for two tamales, a stingy dollop of rice and beans, and a dry, vinegary slaw.

I want to love Pilar’s. Nolasco-Rivers’ dedication to her community and its food producers is admirable. But a restaurant can’t survive on philosophy alone; the food has to taste good too. Pilar’s has already claimed many Ann Arborites’ hearts–it’s now time to pay more attention to their palates.

Pilar’s Tamale Shop
2261 W. Liberty

Mon.-Sat. 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Closed Sun.

Tamales and pupusas, $4. Soups and other daily specials, $6-$8.

Step at entrance stymies wheelchairs.