Word & Image: Mario Alvanes, 38 

Chef and owner of Latino Cuisine, 1731 W. Main St.  

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Scott Elmquist

I wanted to try my own business and I wanted to bring more Latin food for people to try. That's my goal. Get you and your friends to come and say "Wow, look at this Latino restaurant" so they can come and try it.

I'm from El Salvador. My life there was completely different from my life in America. I'm from farm country and I moved to the U.S. in 1999. I lived for a little bit in California then moved to Richmond in 2000. I worked in restaurants here. I was 19 when I moved. I didn't cook in America, I did a little bit in California, but I've been cooking for almost 17 years in Virginia.

When I started, I was at the Olive Garden in Midlothian. I cleaned tables, front-of-house stuff. I did that for three or four months but I didn't really like it. I moved to prep in the kitchen. I liked that a lot more. I worked at the Olive Garden for a year, but then I worked at Bottega and then I worked at 23rd and Main Street, that restaurant on the other side of the Bottom. I ran the kitchen there for two years. I saved up money from the last 10 years, even more than that, so I could open my own place.

The menu has a little bit of everything. The food in the middle page of the menu is more from Latin and Central America. You might know more about Mexican restaurants, but I wanted to do more. That's why it's called Latin Cuisine, so you can get a bit of everything, and then there's the pupusas.

A pupusa is cornmeal dough, filled with beans, cheese and pork. I ate them growing up. You can find them everywhere in El Salvador. Like in America, at every festival, you can find hot dogs everywhere. People make many different pupusas in Central America.

I got my recipe from my grandmama, from her. It's special to me. And here, nobody else sells pupusas in this area. And it's not easy to have in-house, but I'm very happy to make them here and have everybody come.

I would watch my grandma make them by hand, I'd see her pour them together, make the masa (dough) and use fresh cheese. It's real Latin stuff. Any spices on pupusas, normally they are on the side with jalapeño. Everything is separate. With real pupusas, they're more cream.

The pork torta, it's something I really liked. It's also so I can say I have a bit from everywhere. It's from Mexico, but I put a Latin American twist on it. It's got the Mexican white bread and the pork butt, like for barbecue. It's a good thing.

But the beefsteak, it's from El Salvador. If you ever come to my house for a party, I 100 percent have the beefsteak. It's more family meal, more home meal.

I spoke to my family back home and my brothers who live around America. They gave me recipes and they were very happy and said, "Go ahead Mario, you've worked your whole life in restaurants, try and make it happen."  

Food from El Salvador is different from Mexican food because they use a lot of French techniques. And I don't use deep fried beans. My rice isn't yellow rice, its natural color, not white, more creamy in color. The salsas are different too, completely different.

I got this location 'cause the owners wanted to open a restaurant and they were looking for a chef. I saw the phone number in the window and I called and said I could be that chef, but I was looking to be a chef and a partner. We started to work together, and towards the end I said, "This is what I want to do," and he asked, "Do you have the money?" and I did. — As told to Brad Kutner


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