- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 4, 2004

The story behind La Plaza, a year-old Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant in Capitol Hill, is one of dishcloth to restaurant ownership.

Owner Henry Mendoza came to the United States from El Salvador as a teenager in the early ‘80s with not many dollars to his name. He worked as a dishwasher and waiter for 20 years before earning enough money, know-how and contacts to open his own restaurant.

Mr. Mendoza has translated his feel-good personal story into the way he runs his restaurant. La Plaza is a very friendly place, where waiters joke and chat with customers and where grateful clientele occasionally get free tequila shots.

The decor is festive, full of chili pepper Christmas lights, colorful sombreros, pinatas and a border along the wall with names of regulars, people who have known the friendly face of Mr. Mendoza since his early days in various Mexican-Salvadoran restaurants on Capitol Hill.

This familiarity with the neighborhood and its people is why Mr. Mendoza chose to open his eatery on Pennsylvania Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets SE even if there are a half-dozen similar restaurants within about a mile.

“If you have good service and a good product you have nothing to fear,” he says.

And he does offer great service — our chips and salsa bowls were never empty and neither were our margarita and beer glasses — and the food is good, too.

For starters the carnitas al pastor, grilled strips of beef served on a bed of romaine lettuce and topped with tomatoes, is excellent. The beef is tender and succulent and the vegetables fresh.

The guacamole, too, is fresh and tasty, but the serving is on the small side.

The fried plantains, served with refried beans and sour cream, on the other hand, were disappointing. They were dry.

The entree menu is extensive with more than 60 choices, including 10 vegetarian dishes.

Among the most popular entree dishes is the parrillada Salvadorena, a combination plate with steak, shrimp and chorizo, served with white rice and black beans. Its best feature was the lightly seasoned sauteed shrimp. The chorizo too was delicious, while the steak was on the tough side.

The fajita suprema, which consists of sizzling chicken, beef and shrimp, was an excellent choice. The meat and chicken were tender and perfectly spiced, the shrimp a mouthwatering delight.

The pollo el carbonero, half a roasted chicken covered with onions, was nicely seasoned but a little dry.

Most main courses are served with white rice and black beans (although the chicken was only accompanied by rice).

The beef burrito, which is served with rice, refried beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream, is a fine choice, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Other entrees include salmon primavera, an 8-ounce grilled fillet of salmon topped with crabmeat and serviced with asparagus, and mariscada Puerto Escondido, a combination of shrimp, scallops, squid, clams and flounder sauteed with red pimientos, green peppers, onions and tomatoes.

The dessert menu features seven choices. The flan is exceptionally creamy and the fried ice cream is very tasty with lots of cinnamon and rich vanilla ice cream.

The drink menu includes a dozen beer choices, such as Pilsner De El Salvador and Pacifico, homemade sangria, and of course margaritas in different guises. The Margarita del rey, featuring 1800 Tequila and Grand Marnier, is excellent and well-worth the 50 percent price increase over the regular margarita.

La Plaza seats 62 people and has seven tables on the sidewalk, which Mr. Mendoza says is a big draw since he’s the only one to offer outdoor seating on his block. The restaurant, which is close to the Eastern Market Metro stop, fills up on Friday and Saturday, but, unless you’re in a party of 10 or more people, no reservation is needed.

Some of its guests — a large majority of whom are regulars — may choose La Plaza over other nearby Mexican-Salvadoran restaurants because of its food, which is good but not outstanding. But it seems more likely that they choose it because it offers such an extraordinarily friendly, fun and unpretentious atmosphere.

RESTAURANT: La Plaza, 629 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202/546-9512

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays, noon to 11 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 10 p.m. Sundays.

PRICES: Starters $1.95 to $12.95, main course $7.95 to $15.95, dessert $3.25 to $4.95

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

METRO: Eastern Market

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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