A string of wooden blocks, carved and painted to look like traditional Nicaraguan nacatamales, hangs like a masa-based mistletoe behind the counter of Eda’s Latin Food in Manassas, Virginia. Located in an industrial park and surrounded by identical-looking auto body shops, including a sister business in Eda’s Auto Repair, the restaurant may initially be hard to find. But a striking window display featuring blown-up pictures of plantains, fried cheese, and pollo asado grabs visitors’ attention. Inside, hand-painted portraits of Nicaragua’s national flower, a yellow and white sacuanjoche, and a lush green landscape surrounding a volcano join the crafts displayed in every corner.
At one of the only Nicaraguan restaurants in the greater D.C. area, the colorful display signals to expats that they’ve found a cultural haven. Curating the conspicuous display is just one of the ways co-owner Damara Downs is working to preserve her heritage. Downs, a former schoolteacher from the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, has a no-nonsense style for ensuring cooks at Eda’s absorb her homestyle methods for preparing nacatamales — a mixture of seasoned corn masa and lard ladled into plantain leaves — or a queso frito that’s thick, lightly caramelized, and boasts a soft crunch.
“We couldn’t find our own country’s food anywhere we looked [around D.C.],” Downs says. “[My husband] kept asking, ‘Why is there only Mexican food? What is going on here?’”
That lack of gastronomical representation inspired Downs and her spouse, Arturo Downs, to bring Nicaraguan cuisine to the D.C. area themselves. When Eda’s opened in 2015, Downs took the reins, deciding what the restaurant would serve, instructing cooks, and assuming the responsibilities of day-to-day management. At the beginning, Downs says, she required cooks to undertake two full weeks of training.
“We take time in making our recipes,” she says. “There’s always someone to watch how much of something you added, and everyone tastes everything and collaborates.”
In this classroom-style environment, Eda’s cooks learn how Nicaraguan fried cheese is only made from queso fresco. Nicaraguan gallo pinto, a rice and bean dish, is characterized by a rich dark color achieved by using day-old white rice and small red seda beans that are boiled with garlic and fried with oil and onion.
Eda’s nacatamales and bajo — a party dish that cooks carne, plantains, and yuca in banana leaves — remain on a special weekend menu and must be ordered in advance. “I’ve had people come from New York and order 25 nacatamales,” Downs says. “There are people that come from Texas and there is a family that comes every three months for the last four years from Pennsylvania.”
Traditional dishes and Rojita, Nicaragua’s bright-red bubblegum soda, are not all Eda’s has to offer. While cuisine is undoubtedly a part of a country’s culture, Eda’s has managed to encapsulate not only Nicaragua’s gastronomical traditions but also its cultural customs. “I love cultural events,” says Downs, “and it warms my heart to not see a single person sitting down.”
Around the Beltway, Nicaraguans can connect to their culture at community churches or smaller neighborhood gatherings. But Eda’s may be the only place they can enjoy a fritanga — a plate of fried cheese, grilled pork, and gallo pinto — while watching La Gigantona, a folk dance that includes a giant wooden doll, or shouting at a statue of the Virgin Mary during La Purisima, Nicaragua’s celebration of the immaculate conception. For Downs, Eda’s combination of food and events means a survival of Nicaraguan culture in an area where Latin American cuisine is dominated by pupuserias and Sal-Mex restaurants.
“There are people who have asked me, ‘Where are you from? Nicaragua? Where is that?’” Downs says. “You start asking yourself, what can I do for my culture so that it can be recognized for something positive, you know?”
While Eda’s opened back up for indoor dining a year ago, the restaurant has postponed its typical lineup of cultural and community events until the public health risks decrease. In March 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Eda’s had to close for a full month. Ardent support from the Nicaraguan community never wavered. “The phones didn’t stop ringing,” Downs says, “I felt like it was a blessing.”
Regulars like Franklin Gomez felt it was their duty to show love for their local spot. “Eda’s is important for the community because of the small number of Nicaraguans in this area,” says Gomez, a longtime customer who has continued to promote the restaurant on social media throughout the pandemic. “I love to help the Nicaraguan community however I can, and that’s why we are here. We need to help each other out.”
Gomez, a Nicaraguan expat living in Manassas, helped put the restaurant on the map in July 2015 with a post in a Facebook group called Nicas in Virginia-Maryland-DC. The group, which has around 1,400 members today, organizes everything from political protests to shipments of the popular Nicaraguan corn masa biscuits known as rosquillas. Downs says the restaurant experienced a “boom” after Gomez flagged the good food and pure Nicaraguan spirit. For almost a month straight, Eda’s sold out their menu every weekend until they finally managed to keep up with the demand.
Downs first learned to cook Nicaraguan comida casera (homestyle food) while growing up in Managua’s Maria Auxiliadora neighborhood in the ’80s and ’90s. Like other Central American countries, rice, beans, and corn form the foundation of Nicaraguan food. When eating out, many Nicaraguans expect a certain level of “de la casa” familiarity, a sense that they’re eating recipes that have been passed down through several generations.
Downs met her husband, Arturo, in the ’90s while she was still living in Managua and working as an elementary school teacher. Arturo had already permanently emigrated from Nicaragua to the D.C. area and become a U.S. citizen. He met Downs on a trip home. After they married in 2001, Arturo promised he would return to live with her. In 2003, however, after two years of distance, Downs decided to join Arturo in the United States.
“I was 23 years old and I had never left my mother, father, or my siblings,” Downs says. “I came to an unknown world, and no matter how many people told me what it was like, nothing could have prepared me for it.”
The D.C. area contains the third-largest population of Central Americans in the United States, behind metropolitan New York and Los Angeles. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey, published in fall 2020, there were roughly 513,000 Central Americans counted around the DMV. That included more than 325,000 Salvadorans, and only about 16,000 Nicaraguans. The Downs family’s story is a reminder that the reasons for Central American immigration to the D.C. area are not homogenous.
“There are so many different kinds of migration,” says Ana Rodríguez, an associate professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in Latinx studies. “In the Central American case, there’s a lot of reasons that lead to different kinds of diasporas. Think of the political [reasons], think of labor, think of climate change, or violence.”
Downs spent her first few months in the U.S. deeply homesick. “I ate, I cried, I reminisced, and I spent money and even more money on phone calls to talk to my mom,” says Downs, tearing up. “Eventually I told myself that I couldn’t go on like this. I had to keep moving forward.” Downs began working with her mother-in-law cleaning houses. Later, she worked at a Wendy’s in Maryland until she got pregnant with her first son, Steven.
In 2008, after moving to Manassas, the Downs family opened their first small business, Eda’s Hair Stylist. A year later, they opened Eda’s Auto Repair. They liked Eda’s as a name because it represented each member of the family: Damara, Arturo, and Steven, with a random E thrown in at the front. After years of missing Managuan homestyle restaurants, which are also called fritangas, the family sold the salon in 2010 and decided to get into the food business. Eda’s Latin Food began construction in 2012 but didn’t open its doors until July 2015. “Everything has been little by little,” Downs says. “The first three years was all about entering a market that offered other Latin American food that people had years to get used to.”
Downs says catering to a U.S. audience while attempting to launch Nicaraguan food into the mainstream is a delicate balance. “This is a country where, to survive, you need to adapt to all your surroundings if you want to be seen without xenophobia and without discrimination,” she says. However, she is determined to not let pressures to assimilate mute her culture.
Ultimately, this is Eda’s mission — using food not only as a way of unifying the local Nicaraguan community, but also to share the story of the Nicaraguan diaspora with people who may not have known it existed in the D.C. area at all.
“Nicaraguan food, and all Latin American food, has an extensive history and requires a high level of labor,” says Downs. “Everything has its process, but I don’t think there is a single person who would not be passionate about introducing something from their own culture.”