The dining staples you'd expect to find on the street or in diners are becoming more and more upscale in the District of Columbia. What does that signal about the city to its longtime residents?
The Washington region is home to one of the largest Salvadoran communities in the world. Pupuserias and food trucks have left their mark on local food culture. But the community’s culinary influence extends beyond traditional Salvadoran fare into the kitchens of local Spanish, Indian and Iranian restaurants. We explore one of the region’s largest diasporas through food.
- Tim Carman Food Writer, Washington City Paper
- Reyna Guardado Co-Owner, Guardado's Restaurant (Bethesda, Md.)
- Juan Alberto Melgar Owner, Chef, Johnny's Kabob (Germantown, Md.)
Local Restaurant World Tour Map
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Mario Aleman of Dona Azucena restaurant in Silver Spring talks about the importance of the papusa in Salvadoran cuisine. He recalls a Salvadoran man who ate more than 100 papusas in one sitting during a competitive eating contest:
Raphael Ramirez talks about why people come to eat the food he and his staff prepare at his food truck at the intersection of Piney Branch Road and University Blvd:
Alva Barillas of Silver Spring’s “La Escudilla” restaurant talks about what kinds of food her customers enjoy and how the restaurant specializes in Guatemalan, Mexican, Honduran, and Salvadoran food.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's a community whose fingerprints are on everything -- every ethnic cuisine served in the Washington area. By most estimates, there are hundreds of thousands of El Salvadorans living in the D.C. region. And their distinct culture is spilling into the kitchens where many of them work, crafting dishes that run the gamut from kabobs to curry.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut finding authentic Salvadoran restaurants where you can eat the food that defines life in El Salvador itself, that's actually not all that easy. Sure, you can pound the pavement for pupusas and sample from the scene at local food trucks. But in a city where the Salvadoran population is booming, there are surprisingly few purely Salvadoran restaurants around. Joining us to explore what we can learn about our region's Salvadoran community and the immigrant experience through the mysteries of its food is Tim Carman. Tim writes the "Young and Hungry" food column and blog for the Washington City Paper. Tim, good to see you again.
MR. TIM CARMANHey, Kojo. How are you?
NNAMDII am well. Also with us is Reyna Guardado. Reyna is the co-owner of Guardado's Restaurant in Bethesda, Md. Reyna, thank you for joining us.
MS. REYNA GUARDADOThank you for inviting.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Juan Alberto Melgar. He is the owner and chef at Johnny's Kabob Restaurant in Germantown, Md. Johnny, thank you for joining us.
MR. JUAN ALBERTO MELGARVery well thank you, you too, for invites to us here.
NNAMDIIt's a conversation you can join by calling 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, to join the conversation. What food do you think of when you think of El Salvador? 800-433-8850. Tim, you've called this a mystery, and you've been trying to solve it for years. Why has a community as large as the Salvadoran community in the Washington region not try to introduce its culinary culture to the masses here beyond the pupusa, that is? What sent you down the rabbit hole, so to speak...
NNAMDI...to find the answer to this question.
CARMANWell, I think the same reason why you're having a radio program on it (laugh). It's a worthy question. And it has fascinated me. I mean, I think what really interests me and got me interested in the subject was that whenever I saw Salvadoran food, it was always paired with Mexican cuisine.
CARMANAnd, you know, I know there is some overlap. I'm no, you know, culinary historian, but there is some overlap between the two cuisines. But there is also -- from my understanding, there's definitely distinctive dishes that come from El Salvador. And I couldn't quite understand if the Mexicans in the early 20th century could, you know, come into America and start their own restaurants, why couldn’t the Salvadorans do the same thing? And I think I operated with this theory that it was maybe insecurity that the Mexicans -- the Mexican cuisine was already entrenched in D.C., and it was a solid business decision to pair up with a cuisine already known.
CARMANBut the more I got into it -- and I talked to Reyna and other people in the business -- it's far more complicated than that. And I think it boils down to when a lot of the Salvadoran refugees came up during the Civil War, they came from -- I don't wanna say all came from one area, but they came from predominantly poor parts of the country...
NNAMDIPoor and rural areas.
CARMAN...that don't have a rich culinary history. They didn't come from cities. They came from the countryside. So they're producing the food that they know best. But I think that's gonna change. I mean, I hope that's gonna change, 'cause what I understand about Salvadoran cuisine, it's very -- it's considered one of the great cuisines of Central America, Central and Latin America.
NNAMDIBut what got you started? What kinds of Salvadoran dishes got you through the door, the dishes that sparked your interest in all of this?
CARMANWell, I mean, it's the humble pupusa. It's really an amazing little dish. I mean, it's like a tortilla times a thousand. I mean -- and if you watch the people who make pupusas, it's a painstaking and very labor-intensive process to make a good pupusa. You have to take fresh masa, or maybe they use masa harina, which is, you know, kind of instant masa, and roll it in wet hands, and then take whatever filling and carefully fold it in and keep molding it and molding it until you get one pupusa, and put it on a griddle and, I don't know, what's like some pork or some loroco, which is kind of a classic herb down in El Salvador, you roll that into pupusa, and it's a great dish. I mean, it's hearty, it's flavorful, it's like almost like a meal in itself to me.
NNAMDIYou should see Tim Carman's hand gestures as he's trying to demonstrate how a pupusa is made, suggesting that he may have tried his own hand at this sometime, probably unsuccessful.
CARMANI'm not that dumb.
NNAMDIProbably unsuccessfully. Tim writes the "Young and Hungry" food column and blog for the Washington Paper in the state. In case you're just joining us, it's culinary Wednesday here on the show. Also with us in the studio is Juan Alberto Melgar, he is the owner and chef at Johnny's Kabob Restaurant in Germantown, and Reyna Guardado, the co-owner of Guardado's Restaurant in Bethesda, Md. Reyna, you're from El Salvador. Your husband is from El Salvador. Nic has us under scrutiny even as we speak. But you were chasing your dreams here in the United States by serving up Spanish tapas and other Latin cuisine. How did you and your husband end up in the business of cooking and selling food made famous in other countries?
GUARDADOWell, he was the chef at Jaleo for 15 years and...
NNAMDIHe worked with Jose Andres.
GUARDADOYeah. And he went to Spain to learn the cuisine with him. And he loved the way the little dishes were made. And as he went to Spain to learn the cuisine and working in Jaleo, he got interested in that, plus it's easy. Tapas are much easier to prepare, to cook than Salvadorian food.
GUARDADOAnd we our food is a little bit more complicated. It takes all day labor to make one tamales or to make tortas, the nice sandwiches that we sell over there. It's not like in 30 seconds. So we love that food, and that's how we got interesting in the tapas.
NNAMDITell us a little bit about how you and Nick came to Washington and how you ended up in the restaurant business. You told us a little bit about that, his experience with Jose Andres and Jaleo, but tell us a little bit about how you both came to Washington.
GUARDADOI came during the '80s when it was pretty bad in El Salvador. My father got killed during the war. He was a military. I went to California, and a friend brought me here and because I want to study. And I end up at UDC studying -- that's why I graduate at UDC. And I stay here. But as -- when I started this when I met Nicholas learning English as an ESL, basic English. But my dream was to finish college.
NNAMDISince your father was in the military, you did not come from a rural area.
GUARDADOIt was. It was.
NNAMDIIt was a rural area?
GUARDADOBut I travel through El Salvador. And I talked to Tim some day, and I believe Michael also. One of the dish that we really love in El Salvador but I don't think if you sit in a Salvadorian restaurant, you will consider that Salvadorian. They call macaroni. When I arrived the first time to Santa Ana, Calif., I saw these little restaurants, and I asked for macaroni because I saw macaroni and cheese. And I was very happy. And when I get macaroni, it was not macaroni. It's spaghetti. Ours is spaghetti with tomato sauce, and you put sour cream, of course, is our sweet sour cream, not the sour cream. And you put meatballs. The meatballs are a little bit different prepared, and you do macaroni -- I don't know if you love that...
NNAMDISo if I were to go into a Salvadorian restaurant here that was offering authentic Salvadorian cuisine and I asked for macaroni, I would get what we here would consider spaghetti and meatballs?
GUARDADOThere you go. There you go.
NNAMDIThat is amazing.
GUARDADOThere you go. I think -- that's very easy to make. In El Salvador, I think it's after pupusas and tamales, macaroni is one of the common dishes over there.
NNAMDIOne of the favorites. Johnny, you came to the Washington area from El Salvador also in the early 1980s, 1981. It's my understanding that you got your first job as dishwasher, busboy at an Iranian restaurant.
MELGARAn Iranian restaurant, yes.
NNAMDIAnd you spent the rest of your life on a mission to make Persian, Iranian food. At what point did you realize that you have talent for cooking food from way over on the other side of the world?
MELGARYes, well, it's life, you know?
MELGARYeah, I know I like the cuisine, the Middle East food very well. Well, when I -- you know, when I come into this country, it's very, you know, you had to work at whatever is come, you know, because we need money, you know?
MELGARThere is -- I go by step by step in this shop and this restaurant Iranian Persian. Well, after 15, 17 year later, my boss, my lady, the mother for this family...
MELGARI don't know I the chef or not the chef that time yet.
MELGARBecause -- and the lady, she's the big chef at Iranian at that time.
MELGARBig chef that time. We had about 70, 75 year old, this lady.
MELGARI cook in her -- I help into her many year.
NNAMDIWere you a good cook before you left El Salvador?
MELGARNo, I think...
NNAMDIYou knew nothing about cooking.
MELGARNo, I don't know. My mommy -- I don't know how to fry one egg.
MELGARBelieve me, I don't know make a nothing. My mommy make everything to us.
MELGARWhen I come here, it's, you know, I have to change life.
MELGARYou have to do something to living.
MELGARAnd that is the reason I come there. I respect, because I come from a family where you, you know, respect -- I stayed that much working with this old lady. And then I worked in many year with her. You know, many year, 10 year later or 12 year, he come in to tell me, lady. And you pass.
MELGARYou pass the chef already.
MELGARCuisine -- Iranian cuisine now.
NNAMDIYou now can be an Iranian chef after 10 years?
MELGARYeah, I support the Iranian -- the number one in this area, the chef, culinary...
NNAMDISpeaking of which, we have a call from Allan in Washington, D.C., who I think wants to talk about Johnny's. Allan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALLANHi, Kojo. I really enjoy your show all the time, and I think I enjoy it even more now when you talk about good food.
ALLANI wanted to make a comment actually that you already made, Johnny, among other Persian restaurants, but I think he has fabulous food. And I just want to let everyone know, even though you're talking about Salvadorian food, I have a couple of favorites. I think Cafe Paraiso on 14th Street is great. I'm not sure it's very, very authentic or not, but when it comes to Persian food, everyone who loves Persian food should try Johnny's. It's really, really great.
NNAMDISo you're a big fan of Johnny's. What took you there in the first place?
NNAMDIWhat attracted you to Johnny's in the first place?
ALLANWell, actually, we were -- at a party, just a few nights ago, with some Persian friends and they had ordered food from Johnny's and I was amazed. I thought it was authentic restaurant that I knew in Vienna which our friends usually order, but they said this time they ordered from Johnny's. And it was just great. I think he has -- he really has mastered the, you know, the Persian cooking that is -- he's doing a great job.
NNAMDIAllan, thank you very much for your call. Johnny, what is it about preparing Persian food that appeals to you?
MELGARI don't know maybe in my heart.
NNAMDIYou just go and used to it, and you like it?
MELGARYeah, I like it.
NNAMDIOver a period of time...
MELGARI make a lot of big event Iranian in this area.
NNAMDIYou cater a lot of major events for...
MELGARYeah, for 500, 600 people.
MELGARPersian community, yes.
NNAMDIHis name is Juan Alberto Melgar.
NNAMDIHe is the owner and chef of Johnny's Kabob Restaurant in Germantown. You can call him Johnny as we are. He joins us in studio along with Tim Carman. He writes the Young & Hungry food column and blog for The Washington City Paper. Reyna Guardado is the co-owner of Guardado's Restaurant in Bethesda, Md. Allen, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us. 800-433-8850. Where do you think food fits into the immigrant experience or cultural melting pot that's taking a hold of the Washington region? And have you ever eaten a pupusa? Call us. 800-433-8850. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's a culinary Wednesday. And we're discussing on our local restaurant world tour, the cuisine of El Salvador with Reyna Guardado, co -owner of Guardado's Restaurant in Bethesda, Md. Juan Alberto Melgar, he is the owner and chef at Johnny's Kabob Restaurant in Germantown, Md. And Tim Carman. Tim Writes the "Young & Hungry" food column and blog for The Washington City Paper. You can call us too at 800-433-8850. Tim, it's my understanding that you've closely followed the arc of Jose Velasquez, a Salvadorian immigrant who's carved a niche for himself in the District's pizza scene.
CARMANCorrect. Jose used to make pizza over at Pizzeria Paradiso. And he worked there for -- oh, I don’t remember how many years. But he took his knowledge and did what I think anyone would do that is in his position, he opened his own restaurant. And he opened it. I guess it's probably been on three years now. It's called Moroni & Brother's.
NNAMDII know it.
CARMANIt's on Georgia Avenue.
NNAMDIGeorgia Avenue. Go ahead.
CARMANAnd it -- like some of these other restaurants, like Reyna's restaurant -- I don’t know if Alberto's is, but some of these other restaurants -- he's combining his relatively recent love and knowledge of pizza with Salvadoran food. So you can go into Moroni & Brother's and get both. You can get a classic kind of Italian-Neapolitan style pizza and get a pupusa or even -- I think he ventures even a little bit beyond the Salvadoran cuisine. You can get, like, lomo saltado which is kind of beef and French fries all mixed together. It's a terrific little dish.
NNAMDIAnd you drive by there any night. It's in upper Georgia Avenue somewhere between, I think, Crittenden and Decatur or Emerson Street. And you look in and there are all these people, a bunch of people. It seems like a crowd in there most nights.
CARMANThere is. It's -- and it's a good mixture of people. I think that's one of the things that I like about Moroni & Brother's the most is that it seems to draw from the neighborhood.
CARMANAnd it seems to draw a Salvadoran crowd. And then it seems to draw people that are just interested in good food. So you walk in there and it's like it's a real cultural mixing pot in there. And what shouldn't you like about that? That's like D.C. in a nutshell. It’s like we're a very international city, but how often do we see that in the restaurants that we walk into?
NNAMDIWell, we talked about pupusas earlier, the iconic Salvadoran dish. And you heard Tim creating it with his hands (laugh) in his voice on radio. Some of our producers recently went to Dona Azucena in Montgomery County, the oldest pupuseria in the D.C. area. A manager there told us that many people in El Salvador eat at least one pupusa a day and that he eats at least four. Reyna start -- and, by the way, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org and you can see them -- some of the interviews we conducted there. Reyna, where does the pupusa fit into your experience living in El Salvador when you were there?
GUARDADOPupusas are -- is a dish that you can get at any time. For breakfast, you can eat it. Like you eat pancakes over here, you can get pupusas over there. The most common for breakfast will be, I would say, cheese and -- or frijoles, black beans.
GUARDADOAnd for lunch, not as much, but for dinner, a lot of pupusas. And all kinds of pupusas. Like you mentioned, the lorocos which now is -- we find some store that we can buy very green flower that smells really good, that you can blend and put cheese in there and makes it really good. You can make tons of different type of pupusas.
NNAMDIJohnny, when you have a craving for a pupusa here, where do you go?
MELGARKeg's. (sp?) I can't say the name. What are the -- what I mean, I go to the -- what restaurant I can go?
NNAMDIYeah. Which one do you go? Do -- you can say the name, yeah.
MELGAROkay, I go -- I find some small restaurant El Comalito.
NNAMDIWhere is that?
MELGARIt's in Germantown -- in 355 Germantown.
NNAMDII'm so glad you mentioned that because here is Sheryl calling from Germantown, Md. Sheryl, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
SHERYLHi Kojo. Hi, how are you doing today?
SHERYLGood, good. I'm actually sitting right around the corner from Johnny's. (laugh) And I was astounded when I first went in there to find such a fine little place, you know, run by a Salvadoran but serving Persian food. And I wanted to mention that we do have a couple of other places in Germantown. It's coming up, you know, and we need more -- I mean, although I love that place, we do have, we do need more ethnic restaurants in this area. It's very multiculti, but it's just not represented the way some places might be in Gaithersburg like -- well Gaithersburg has Junior's Chicken, which is absolutely fabulous. And we just -- I think don't have any place to match that in Germantown. Correct me if I'm wrong, Johnny. I mean, I don't know -- I just, I think.
MELGARYou -- you're okay. You're right, you're right. You needed more restaurant there.
NNAMDIJohnny says he needs company. (laugh)
MELGARMaybe can go -- maybe can make and mix together to one another, open together.
NNAMDISee you there?
NNAMDIYou gotta be. (laugh) You've got a proposition, so to speak, Sheryl. (laugh)
SHERYLWell, I wanted to mention Sabai Sabai, which is a really excellent Thai restaurant that we have right across from the library in Germantown. And then also the Saviet grill, which is next to Lotte, which is a wonderful international market. And then we have the old standbys that when I moved from Silver Spring, I was surprised to find them here, the Woodside Deli.
SHERYLAnd Mi Rancho and then we also have -- the Royal Bagel Bakery, run by an Italian but with wonderful Jewish food and, well, mostly pastries and good bagel.
NNAMDIThey just still want more, right, Sheryl?
SHERYLOh, of course, I want more. (laugh) I am a foodie. I am a foodie. I was one of the original members of a restaurant that doesn't exist anymore, but it was the Tacoma cafe.
SHERYLAnd it was a vegetarian, well, quasi-vegetarian. We did serve chicken and fish -- free-range chicken.
NNAMDII'm familiar with the Tacoma café.
NNAMDIOf course, Sheryl. I've been around a long time. (laugh) Sheryl, thank you very much for your call and for talking about Germantown. We move on now to Taigo (sp?) in Silver Spring, Md. Taigo, your turn. Go ahead, please.
TAIGOHey Kojo. How you doing today?
TAIGOGood, good. I just wanted to call 'cause -- I moved into a place in Silver Spring, Flora Avenue...
TAIGO...about a year ago and in that area I kind of hear Tacoma Park, as Sheryl is talking about. They have tons of pupuserias, and I don’t even know about the dish. And me and my girlfriend just went down to the, you know, one of them. We don't even -- we just go to different ones every time and we just love them. So we get them like, you know, once a week now. So -- it's just, you know, it's delightful down there. It's like you're almost in that area. It’s almost like you're in -- like another country. You don't really feel like you're in D.C. So...
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up, Taigo, because Tim Carman has spent a lot of time writing about and eating Salvadoran street food. If you travel up the Piney Branch Strip in Montgomery County, you can literally eat your way up the street from food truck to food truck. But you noted a few years ago, Tim, that Prince George's County cracked down on the trucks nearby, and a lot of them have scattered.
CARMANYeah, that was -- that was unfortunate. There was a really wonderful street food, street truck scene, kind of on university -- off of University Boulevard and New Hampshire.
CARMANThere used to be -- well there is still is -- it's a -- like apartment complex is over there.
CARMANOver the -- the Salvadoran trucks would line up, they would be on both sides of the street and on parallel streets. And you could go there. You could spend an afternoon and I did -- just going from one truck to the other truck to try to understand the differences. Now, I'm embarrassed that I -- after all this time I lived in Texas, I still can't speak Spanish with a hood. But, you know, I would get along and they would walk me through it. But I learned so much in this little neighborhood area, where all these trucks used to be.
CARMANWell, somebody in, you know, in Prince George's County decided that this wasn't such a good idea. There was – suddenly, after years of this existing with no problems, there were suddenly -- there were sanitary issues, health issues. So they enforced a law that was apparently on the books that they just ignored, and they drove all these trucks away and they've scattered. Many of them, I think have tried to screw with the law for quite awhile. And then some -- a lot of them have decided to bite the bullet and go to Montgomery County, where they are allowed but they have a lot of rules.
CARMANAnd it's very expensive for them to work the streets in Montgomery County. But they're everywhere, and they're kind of hidden in plain sight. And you can go down Piney Branch. You can go to, like, the Sunoco station, and there's one there. You can go to the Chevron station, there's one there. You can go behind the tire shop and there's one there. So they opt to be kind of tied to a brick and water place, 'cause they can have access to water and bathrooms and all that. But they're all, like if there's any place that serves traditional Salvadoran food, it's these trucks. And you -- and if you really want to be adventurous and go find them, you'll find some amazing trucks all throughout Montgomery County, particularly, along that strip, you just mentioned Piney Branch -- kind of winding through Silver Spring.
NNAMDIWe'll talk some more about that also later. But first, here is Shahin in Bethesda, Md. Shahin, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
SHAHINHi Kojo. I love your show.
SHAHINYeah, I wanted to send actually a quick shout out, Johnny, because when he was speaking about the older woman who he worked with -- that was actually my great -- my grandmother.
SHAHINAnd the restaurant that he works at was actually my father's. So I grew up eating Johnny's food and I have to just, you know, send a kudos to him, not only for his cooking abilities, but also for his entrepreneurial abilities in starting his restaurant. And, I mean, I've heard nothing but great things. My mother has been up there to try the food, and it is amazing. And I'm really picky about Persian food, but it is just amazing. We've gone here often.
NNAMDIShahin, what was the name of the restaurants your parents owned?
SHAHINWell, two. There was one called Paradise and one called Claude (sp?) which was in Georgetown.
NNAMDIOh, okay. Thank you very much for your call. I think you've made Johnny a little happier... (laugh)
NNAMDI...with that, Shahin.
MELGARI see this boy, a little kid.
NNAMDIYou know him as a little kid. Well, he said he did grow up eating...
MELGARI told you, it grow up.
NNAMDI...your food. Tim Carman, back to you. What advice would you give to someone who wants to sample the local Salvadoran trucks, right now?
CARMANWell, be patient. (laugh) I think -- there is a truck that I love. It's on the corner of -- what is it, 410 at New Hampshire? And I'm gonna butcher the name. And I'm gonna apologize in advance, but it's like La Preferida.
NNAMDII think that's the truck you will actually see in our video at our website, kojoshow.org.
CARMANAnd they have some of the best pupusas, but you have to wait. And you have to wait. (laugh) And if it's a hot day, you better wait in your car, (laugh) because they had -- they're so popular, that people will call in and get their orders to go ahead of time. So there's -- even though there's no one standing in front of the window of this truck, they're working, like, 10 orders before you. And so every time I think I'm just go in and out and get some tacos or some pupusas or horchata, which we even talked about. I love -- savor the one, horchata, which is different from the Mexican horchata. But if you want it, it takes -- it's a good 10, 15 minutes. It's not fast food, which I think is the...
NNAMDII was about to say, it's not Mickey D's.
CARMANYes. It gives you the impression that because it's a truck, it's gonna be fast food, but it's not.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Have you ever sought out authentic ethnic cuisine at a food truck? Where did you go, and what food were you looking for? 800-433-8850. Here is Nypsa (sp?) in Winchester, VA. Nypsa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NYPSAYes. Hi. How are you guys doing?
NNAMDII'm doing well and everybody else seems to be also. (laugh)
NYPSAI'm from the Winchester area. And I am from a Puerto Rican descent. I myself, I'm a cook. My parents used to have restaurants all the time in Puerto Rico. And for the last years, I've been trying to bring one to Winchester. It wasn't easy, but I'm still trying. But about the pupusas and Salvadoran food, our area has blown 300 percent on Salvadoran people. And though there isn't any Salvadoran food around, we order from, like, homes. It's like people that go to our church. And we'll order the sauerkraut and the pupusas and whatever out they make. Plus, this year, because I work in the industry of recruiting, they gonna -- they're opening a new plant, these three Salvadoran ladies from New Jersey are opening a new plant, like, for 85 people. Employees are gonna be there, and they're only gonna do Salvadoran stuff.
NNAMDIAh. So this is will be...
NYPSAThey're gonna be selling to the local community. They're gonna be selling to the stores, restaurants, and it's all gonna be hand-made. (laugh) And I'm -- we were excited, because we have a lot of, you know, a lot of -- we know a lot of Salvadorans in this area.
GUARDADOThis is Winchester...
NNAMDIWell, and as Reyna said earlier, I like her to reiterate that, Reyna, the challenge -- the biggest challenge if somebody is to launch a restaurant here that serves purely Salvadoran food is the amount of time it takes to prepare.
GUARDADOIt's the amount of time.
GUARDADOWe love our tamales, Salvadoran tamales are labor. After Tim interview us three years ago, I decide to have the following year on September, which is our independence, Center American Independence, and I have this special just Salvadoran. And it took me the whole week to prepare the enchiladas, pupusas, and so the other thing is so much labor. You have to have a lot of people helping you. One person, you have to teach other people to do and to do it right.
NNAMDIWe had a call -- we had a caller named Janice who couldn't stay on the line, who asked us to re-explain what a pupusa is. Tim Carman?
CARMANWell, maybe I should bow to the people who actually know how to...
NNAMDIOh, I hope you're gonna give us the hand gestures again...
NNAMDIBut, okay. Here is Johnny. Exactly how do you make a pupusa, John?
MELGARWell, I wonder where you -- pupusa is most as he make it -- they make the woman. The man is very, little man, he can bow, 400 men or maybe five or three men, he can't make it that way.
NNAMDIJohnny defers to Reyna. Reyna, how does one make a pupusa, then? I see Nick in the background. No coaching, Nick. Go ahead, Reyna.
GUARDADOWell, you know, it's funny, I grew up in a family that was a military family, so I didn't know how to cooking nor to make tortillas that was simple until I came to the area that I know how to make tortillas and pupusas I learned a year ago. I went online and asked my sister how to do it. But pupusa is a lot of labor. It's a flour that you -- you do...
NNAMDIUsually, a corn flour?
GUARDADOYeah, the corn flour. And then you put water. And then, it's just like you're going to do a bread. You just kind of mold in. And then, after you had that, like he said, you has to stuff it. But it's just the way that you do it. My son, not perfectly fine. There are some -- there have been, like my sister-in-law, when you eat a pupusa from here, it's the whole pupusa, you get, stuff at mine it's probably, a quarter that's missing. Up to quarter, you'll find some cheese but the other quarter it's not. Is you has to be, I guess, talented and you has to born with the talent making the pupusa. Pupusa is a hard labor, and you have to -- the more you make it, the more you -- I guess, you can become better. But I am not.
MELGARThat's what he say...
MELGARNobody have a -- that truck he talking about right now.
MELGARThat's me -- that's people who have a good talent in their hand because that food, the culinary are food. It's not easy, not everybody can make a chef. But that is the problem. You don't have a talent in the hand, it's like artist.
GUARDADOYou have to be talent to make a very good pupusas.
NNAMDIThe same qualities that a surgeon must have, you've got to be able to have -- you not only have to know how to do it, but you have to have the hands...
NNAMDI...in order to be able to do it. Thank you very much. We go on now to Vaheed (sp?) in Montgomery County, Md. Vaheed, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
VAHEEDHi, Kojo. Long-time listener, first-time caller.
NNAMDIThanks for calling.
VAHEEDHow are you doing?
NNAMDII'm doing well.
VAHEEDYeah. I just wanted to thank Johnny for his magic. He's the most talented cook I've ever seen in the whole area. You know, the way he makes Bengali pulao, (unintelligible), shrimp pulao. These are very hard to make, even for Iranian most talented ladies, which, you know, they say they're really doing great. But he himself once told me that no one can beat his shrimp pulao and Bengali pulao. And whenever we go to a party, just -- the only place we call the order food is from Johnny. And this man is just doing great.
NNAMDINow, if I were to tell you that in 1981, Johnny couldn't boil an egg, would you believe me?
VAHEEDYeah, I heard. (laugh) In 1981, I was born. But he is doing great, and I just wanted to thank you on behalf of all the person -- community involved, was in D.C. Metropolitan area. He is doing great. Thank you, Johnny. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd he's come a long way. Juan Alberto Melgar, known as Johnny, is the owner and chef of Johnny's Kabob Restaurant in Germantown. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our local restaurant world tour, El Salvador. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's Wednesday. Welcome to our local restaurant world tour. This Wednesday, we're looking at El Salvador with Juan Alberto Melgar. He is the owner and chef at Johnny's Kabob restaurant in Germantown, Md. Reyna Guardado is the co-owner of Guardado's Restaurant in Bethesda, Md. And Tim Carman writes the Young and Hungry food column and blog for the Washington City Paper. You can call us: 800-433-8850. Or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is Herbert in Columbia, Md. Hi, Herbert.
NNAMDIHello, Kojo. It's good to have an opportunity to participate in your conversation there. It's pretty interesting being a Salvadoran myself. And it's good to hear of such good exponent of our culture there.
NNAMDIGlad you could call. Any particular Salvadoran dish you favor, Herbert?
NNAMDIWell, you know, pupusas are central, I guess, a staple, the traditional staple of our -- of Salvadoran cooking. But you also have the panes con pavo, which are, you know, French bread stuffed with turkey and sauce, which is a meal all in itself. So it's really good. And I'm glad that I -- the question I had is what areas over Salvador are your guests from?
NNAMDIWhat area of El Salvador are you from, Reyna?
GUARDADOI am from the border, Santa Ana.
NNAMDIWhere is Nick from? Your husband Nicolas?
NNAMDIAnd, Johnny, where are you from?
NNAMDIFrom La Union. Departamento La Union.
CARMANTim Carman, by the way, is from Texas, Herbert.
NNAMDIHerbert, thank you very much for your call.
HERBERTOh, thank you. And I just -- if I may say there...
HERBERTYou know, there are good exponents of the versatility that Salvadoran cooking has achieved here in the States, you know?
NNAMDII'm glad you brought up that and one of the dishes that you mentioned, Herbert, because I like people to call this and answer this question. What food do you think of when you think of El Salvador, beside pupusas, that is? 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. Tim Carman, if pupusas aren't your thing, what are some other good dishes to sample that you can typically find at a good food truck?
CARMANWell, I think, pupusas are really the main product. You can't get Horchata. And I think Horchata is kind of a milky, although that's kind of a point of contention on whether it's made with milk or water. But it's a milky drink that's based on what's called the Morro seed. Instead of, like, the Mexican version -- it's usually prepared with rice -- the Salvadorian version is prepared with Morro seed. And it really has this wonderfully sweet and nutty flavor to it. And, you know, whoever invented Horchata drink, it was just brilliant because it goes with spicy food so well. It's like nutty and sweet and milky, and it -- like if it's really hot, it's -- that milk cuts through the spice. Just like whenever you're supposed -- whenever you eat a hot pepper, you're supposed to drink some milk. Well, this is automatically in the drink, so it's like a very nice drink to have with your Salvadorian food.
CARMANI mean, there's a lot of dishes that I've read about but I don't find that many of them. And, I mean, like tamales. Reyna was talking about the tamales and how time-intensive they are. And one of the interesting things to me is that the Salvadorian version of tamales uses banana leaves, and it's very -- specifically, you're supposed to use banana leaves as opposed to corn husks because it's supposed to impart a different flavor into the masa. Yet I don't see that, and maybe Reyna knows where you can -- I could try that.
GUARDADONot around. Every time that I wanna eat tamales, I make them myself because I asked some of the Salvadorian restaurants. They sell tamales and they don't. In fact, I have a customer who wanted to eat them, but he wanna eat Mexican tamale, which is a little bit different. So I found -- you don’t found Mexican restaurants in the area, you found in Tex-Mex. And I found one very good in Washington. So this is where I went and get good tamales for this person, but Mexican tamales. But I haven't find any Salvadorian.
NNAMDIHow about you, Johnny? You know any place you can find Salvadorian tamales in the Washington area?
MELGARWe have a lot of it right here. We have to -- well, I only decided one restaurant I told you, the El Comalito.
MELGARI like the…
NNAMDIAnd you can get Salvadorian tamales there?
MELGARYes, yes. Yeah.
MELGARBecause I like the pupusa. They make tamale the way it is.
MELGARBecause it's close to my wife.
MELGARMy wife cook very well. (laugh)
CARMANI think there is one dish, Kojo...
CARMAN...that -- it is pretty common around Salvadorian restaurants, and it is yuca with chicharron, which is just friend pork. And you can find that in a lot of different places. And it's a very heavy dish because it's like fried yuca.
NNAMDII like yuca with anything.
MELGARThat's how I like it because...
NNAMDII'm from that part of the world.
MELGARI know that.
CARMANIt's a terrific dish, though. But, you know, I think you can find it at Moroni Brothers. I don't know. I can't remember if you serve it, Reyna, or not.
CARMANOkay. But it -- you can find it in a lot of the Tex -- the ones that combine Mexican food with Salvadorian food. There's almost always yuca with chicharron.
NNAMDIAll right. On to Chris in Silver Spring. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me on.
CHRISI just wanted to give a shout-out to some amazing women, Salvadorian women who I work with and know in Silver Spring and Long Branch who are feeding the community and supporting their families, making some amazing Salvadorian food. They make all kinds of food and sell it throughout the neighborhood and really just add a lot to our community. And also I wanted to add that you can get really good Salvadorian tamales at one of my favorite restaurants, La Casita on Piney Branch Road.
NNAMDIOkay. What part of Silver Spring, the ladies you are seeking to commend due to their Salvadorian food, then? What part of Silver…?
CARMANIt's called Long Branch, and it's right around the intersection of Piney Branch and University Boulevard.
NNAMDIGot it. Yes, that’s the strip right there. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We move on to Raheem in Bethesda, Md. Raheem, your turn. Hi, Raheem. Are you there?
RAHEEMHi, Kojo. This is Raheem. How are you?
RAHEEMI love your show. Kojo, I'm a fan of your show. I hope you give me just a little bit of time so I can clarify something very important.
RAHEEMKojo, as you know, in today's life, when we talk about the food, food is also, by the mistake of some people, they politicize. They are trying to misinform the people. For example, now we are talking about Persian cuisine. I am from the northwestern part of the Iran, which is called the Iranian Azerbaijan, or South Azerbaijan. We are Turks. Majority of the people in Iran are Turks. And if you ask from the owner of Johnny's, he will admit Iran, there is cooked. Iranians have bakeries. Iranians are best rug makers. which they rip off in the States, Persian rugs. These are all coming from the Iranian Azerbaijan, which we are Turks, not Persians. Now my friend, the cook in the Johnny's restaurant, I'm delighted he learned a lot of thing about the Iranian cuisine, not Persian cuisines, because Iran is not equal to the Persian, my friend, at least if you took some time to learn from food, how to make Iranian cuisine food. I think it wouldn't hurt if you can take just one simple book. You'd understand about the history of Iran.
NNAMDIRaheem, thank you very much for the history lesson. I have one simple question for you. Do you consider yourself Persian or Turkish?
RAHEEMNo, I simply concern -- consider myself Iranian-Turk or South Azerbaijani.
NNAMDIOkay, got it. Got it. Thank you very much for your call. We move on to Wilmer in Virginia. Wilmer, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Wilmer. Are you there?
WILMERYes, Kojo. How are you doing?
WILMERThank you for such a wonderful show. I just have a comment to make. I'm from El Salvador. I came here when I was very little. And I married somebody who is an American, and, you know, she does not know how to cook the Salvadorian food. Neither do I. So we go to a lot of different restaurants to look for Salvadorian food. And she -- my wife now has done so good at telling which Salvadorian food is good and which is not. She's even better than I am now by telling which food is best. And I just truly enjoy your show. I miss my food, and I wish I knew how to cook more Salvadorian food. So thank you for your show.
NNAMDIWhat advice would you give to someone who is trying to learn how to cook Salvadorian food, Reyna? Have a lot of time on your hands, for one, (laugh) but -- well, its...
GUARDADOIt takes experience and practice. You have to practice.
NNAMDIAnd that's the only way you get experience.
GUARDADOYeah. I'd be practicing for many -- since I came to the are you know how to cook. And -- but since we had a restaurant, I get a chance to practice some Salvadorian food. But I ask my sister in El Salvador to send me -- to e-mail me and or to -- just over the phone, and then I just practice. And my husband and I, we just practice it together because we use the same thing, which is...
NNAMDIWhat I would do if I were you, Wilmer, would be I would hang around Guardado's and ask Reyna to pass on some of her sister's recipes to me, and...
NNAMDI...start working with those.
GUARDADOI'm just still practicing. And my husband said that I still -- because her mother cooks very good food so...
NNAMDIWell, hey, we're all practicing. Wilmer, thank you for your call. Here is Rick in Alexandria, Va. Rick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICKHello, Kojo, and everybody. Thank you very much. I appreciate it. I'm not sure I can compete with Rahim's quickest call just a few moments ago, but (laugh) I'll give the best I can. But I have to say I'm originally from Florida and I moved up here not too long ago. And one thing that I really like to experience are smaller family-owned restaurants, not so much more of the corporate side. And in Florida, you don't really have the culture of diversity as far as restaurants and foods. It seems like it's more mass produced for tourists and things like that, and Midas, Miami for example. But coming up here, there are so many wonderful, wonderful restaurants that I've experienced. And one of those that happens to be one of your guests' tonight is at Guardado's. And I went up there and experienced a wonderful experience with the food there. And, you know, they're very friendly over there as well. So I really appreciated that. It's very nice to hear somebody -- Reyna, I believe, right?
GUARDADOYes, thank you.
RICKGracias. So I just wanna let you know that I'm listening to the show, and I couldn't believe it. So I had to call in and let you know that I really love your food, and it's a wonderful experience. I know I live in Alexandria, but when I get a chance to go up to Bethesda area, I'd love to stop at your place. But these are the types of restaurants I like to experience and find out, and I haven't come across an El Salvadorian restaurant yet, per se. But in Johnny's, I haven't been in yours yet, but I hope to make it that way as well. But these are the type of restaurants I love, so I'm glad you're talking about these types of cuisines. It's very interesting.
NNAMDIRick, thank you very much for your call. I think we have time for one more. Here is Ana in Chevy Chase, Md. Ana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Ana. Are you there? Ana? I'm gonna put Ana back on-hold. And we have a couple of e-mails that I like to share with you.
NNAMDIMeryl in New York said, "I moved to the Washington, D.C. area after graduating from university in 1987 and lived there for eight years. Arlington had the best pupuseria on Washington Boulevard near the Route 50 entrance, but I don't know if it's still there. Where I live now, there are very few ethnic restaurants. There are, however, many local Salvadorians who have started opening tiendas. I've started going to La Tienda just a block from my house. I have settled for the frozen cheese in La Roca pupusas that he has stocked away in his stash." I guess that's better than no pupusas at all, huh, Tim?
CARMANI guess so.
NNAMDIAnd this we got from Steven who says, "One bright spot in this miserable D.C. United..." For those of you who don't know, that is -- that's our local soccer team. "One bright spot in this miserable D.C. United season is the pupusa stand on the concourse behind section 314 at RFK Stadium, even more soothing than the 20-ounce beers that's available nearby. (laugh) Terrific show for a wonderful cuisine," says Steven. And I think we'll try Ana briefly, one more time. Ana, you are on the air. Can you hear me, Ana? Go ahead, please.
ANAHi, Kojo. This is Ana Sol Gutierrez. And I've been listening to your show, as you know, I'm Salvadorena. And I just wanted to make a couple of comments. You posed a question early on as to why Salvadorians -- we've been here for so long, and we didn't have our own restaurants. I think they're very cleverly -- Salvadorians recognize that if they put up a sign saying Salvadorian restaurant, they wouldn't attract as many people that hadn't heard about Salvador. Hopefully, after this show, they will be able to put up a sign. Usually, they are advertised as Tex-Mex, and then underneath it, it says Salvadorena or Salvadorians. But let me confirm to you that we Salvadorians, all this huge numbers of Salvadorians, we know where to go, and it doesn't need to say Salvadorians. And most of the places that have the best food have another name, but when you go in, it's -- comida a la vista is the thing that is truly Salvadorian, where it's very...
NNAMDIComida a la vista. I'll keep that in mind, Ana...
ANAComida a la vista.
NNAMDI...because we're just about out of time. Thank you for your call. Reyna Guardado, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIReyna is the co-owner, along with her husband Nicolas, of Guardado's Restaurant in Bethesda, Md. Nicolas says he doesn't like being on the air that much. Juan Alberto Melgar is the owner and chef at Johnny's Kabob Restaurant in Georgetown. Johnny, thank you.
MELGARYeah, thank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIIn Germantown, Md. Tim Carman writes the Young and Hungry food column and blog for the Washington City Paper. Tim, always a pleasure.
CARMANThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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