The intersection of Florida Avenue, 18th Street and U Street is where bar goers start their treks uphill to the strip of bars in Adams Morgan. So much has changed at that intersection with the neighboring blocks giving way to new residences, restaurants and shops. But since 1982, one thing hasn't changed — a Mexican-Salvadorian restaurant called El Tamarindo.
Started by Jose Reyes and his wife Betty, the family opened the restaurant's doors more than 30 years ago and only close them for major holidays (and Jose is reluctant to even do that.) The Reyes patriarch can still be found working at his restaurant until 5 a.m. on the weekends, long after the last crowd of bar hoppers have gone to bed. But fortunately for them, El Tamarindo opens at 10 a.m. everyday, so these same late-night revelers can order the restaurant's famous pupusas to soak up the residual alcohol and nurse those Adams Morgan hangovers. But Jose, his daughter and current manager Ana Reyes, and the rest of his family won't bat an eye because they have seen this go down for decades.
You have been in business for more than 30 years. Why has El Tamarindo survived for so long while other places have disappeared?
Ana Reyes: I think the beauty of our restaurant is authenticity in both the food and the service. My parents opened the restaurant in 1982, and I'm not sure if you know, but we're open until 2 a.m. during the week and 5 a.m. on the weekends. And a few years ago, we started closing on Christmas Day, and my father had nearly had a heart attack. He's here every single night – until 2 a.m. on weekdays and 5 a.m. on weekends. He's just doing what needs to be done.
There's a lot of passion. You can feel it when you walk in. And we know more than half our customers by first name. There's a lot of heart here, and that definitely separates us from other places.
Jose Reyes: Well, what I can say is that we are a very consistent restaurant. We are almost open 24 hours. This is a family restaurant. Everyone can come here. And my family is bigger. So that's more expenses. So I want to stay in business.
Why did your parents decide to open up in Adams Morgan?
AR: Where De Vinos is now, he [Jose] used run a billiards bar in the basement. But it was kind of an underground thing. And then my mom used to make dishes at her house catered to the Latino community, and the men would get off of work and go to the bar. So my mom would sell snacks and stuff. And this place was either a carpet store or a pawn shop, and it came up for lease. So that's how it happened.
JR: When I arrived in the United States, I arrived in Washington, D.C. And I love Washington, and I don't have a plan to leave Washington. I love it here.
I see that there are two different dining rooms. Were both of these part of the original restaurant or was one an addition?
AR: The dining room on the left when you enter was originally an Eritrean restaurant — I think — and my parents purchased it in 1990 or thereabouts to expand the restaurant.
How did you get involved in helping manage your parents' restaurant?
AR: There are five of us total, and we kind of grew up in the restaurant. Just hanging out and doing what kids do. I went away for college and studied business management, and then I came back and worked outside of the family business for a while. But they were always like, "When are you going to hop onboard?" It was in 2007 that I decided to join them.
How has Adams Morgan changed since El Tamarindo opened more than 30 years ago?
AR: We always had a pretty diverse clientele. The neighborhood has definitely changed. The competition is very intense. There's this kind of unexplained phenomenon here — and there's probably a lot of explanation to it, and maybe I just haven't sat down and tried to think about it. So when Adams Morgan was undergoing all that construction, a lot of places took a hit. And we didn't. People just kept on coming. There was one day for lunch, so we didn't have a sidewalk, and there was a bulldozer — it probably wasn't one but it looked like one — parked right in front of our door. And people just kind of scooted their way into the front door. And we were slammed. So even with all the changes, we have a very loyal client base.
Speaking of changes, how has the menu changed since 1982? I see you guys have a gluten-free menu on the website, which probably wasn't something you'd advertise 30 years ago.
AR: About 75% of the menu is original from the 80s. The recipes are pretty much the same. But it has evolved a bit to keep up with how the market is moving. But we always want to focus on our authenticity. And as far as the gluten-free menu, most of our cuisine was already gluten-free, so we just had to define it for our customers. We also played around with vegetable bases for some dishes so we'd have more vegetarian and vegan options for our customers without compromising taste or quality.
What are the dishes at El Tamarindo that you are known for?
AR: Pupusas. Hands down. We got the best in town. And you can get them from open to close. When my parents started the business, there was maybe one lady selling pupusas out of her house, and someone else was selling it as well. But they didn't know how to make them. They would make it with bacon, which makes the pupusa into a disaster. But people bought it because it was familiar to other Salvadorans. But we had a woman come into the kitchen early on and showed us how to make these amazing pupusas, and that's how everything got rolling.
Your family is from El Salvador. Why create a Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant?
AR: The whole Mexican-Salvadoran fusion happened because Salvadoran cuisine wasn't really established. So we needed to piggyback off of Mexican cuisine to introduce customers to Salvadoran dishes, which in of itself is very Salvadoran since we just kind of figure it out as we go.
Was El Tamarindo the only Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant in the area back in 1982?
AR: So I have yet to find – if I'm not mistaken, and I've done some research – we are the first Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant.
In Adams Morgan or in DC?
AR: I think in DC. And actually, I would say about five Mexican-Salvadoran restaurants in the area that started in the 90s are from employees that worked here. There's El Norteño in Silver Spring. The woman that started that one was my mom's righthand woman. She was phenomenal. Then there's Los Chorros in Wheaton, which is my mom's sister's restaurant. My parents have been very supportive of other people doing their own thing.
So former employees have gone out to open restaurants. Why is there only one El Tamarindo?
AR: They actually had two other places at one point. My parents are the typical American dream story. They never went to school. My mom made it to maybe ninth grade. And then they came here with nothing and busted their butts to make this happen. So they are extremely hardworking, so that's been good for them. But I also think that's held them back because they hadn't been able to grow because they are very hands-on.
Where were the other two locations?
AR: There was one on Wisconsin Avenue in Tenleytown. That was around for a good 15 years. And that was a partnership with my dad's brother, and they broke the partnership and went their own ways. And there was another one on Georgia Avenue in Shepherd Park, and that's a completely different animal. And that location was open for maybe 15 years as well. But this location in Adams Morgan has always been the main one. And we have a couple things up our sleeve, which we will be releasing slowly.
Has anyone famous ever dined here?
AR: We have had a lot of famous Latinos come here. I think we had a few El Salvadoran presidents come here. Plenty of local politicians have come through here.
JR: Yes, three El Salvadoran presidents have come here. Two are friends of mine. And one is not a friend of mine. One came here before he was a president and told everyone how he was going to be president.
AR: That's the one he doesn't like.
Are you doing anything special for the holidays?
AR: We'll have a special menu for New Year's. And we'll be open until 4 a.m. So you can come in for New Year's Eve dinner and gather yourself up. We'll be here for your second wind for that night.
If you could have anyone come to the restaurant, who would you want?
JR: I would like Obama. Who wouldn't want him to come?
AR: I would say Sotomayor. She's Latina, high-powered and so humble. We would love to have her over.
JR: I want to add the ex-President Bill Clinton. He would be fun.