Washington Post – Pamela Constable
Thirty years ago, Armando Mejia fled war-torn El Salvador and sneaked into the United States. He was 17, with a sixth-grade education and two dollars in his pocket. For the next two decades, he toiled in the kitchens of Washington-area restaurants, working his way up from dishwasher to chef.
Today Mejia, 49, owns three upscale Tex-Mex bistros in Northern Virginia, and a fourth in the District. A shrewd and genial host, he serves perfect frozen margaritas and supports local school sports. A fastidious boss, he insists that the bathrooms be cleaned three times a day. The strategy has won him a loyal and diverse customer base far from his roots.
“Why do I like it here? Because it’s got the old ‘Cheers’ atmosphere,” said Mary Stites, an administrator at NASA who was chatting with a friend at the glittering bar in Mejia’s El Tio cafe in Gainesville, Va., one recent afternoon. “Armando treats everyone like family,” she said. “And there are no sticky counters.”
In the four decades since a handful of refugees began a chain of illegal migration from El Salvador to Washington, the region’s Salvadoran community has swelled to more than 300,000.
Most entered the United States without authorization and stayed. Many are still illegal, which has confined them to menial or informal work in construction, food industry or personal service.
“Latinos mostly go out to celebrate birthdays and special occasions. Americans go out to dinner all the time,” Mejia said. Among his most popular draws are beer discounts during National Football League games and margarita specials on Thirsty Thursdays. His outlets employ 125 people and take in about $55,000 a month. In December, the Salvadoran chamber honored him as business owner of the year.
“We don’t advertise, but we make everyone feel welcome. People come by word of mouth,” Mejia said. As he surveyed the convivial scene, he grew reflective. “I crossed the river with my backpack like everyone else, but I was always a dreamer,” he said. “If you work hard and stay honest, this is still the best country in the world to build your dreams.”