City's Latino flavor growing stronger

April 06, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

In a sign that the Latino community of Southeast Baltimore is coming of age, a cluster of Hispanic businesses -- groceries, restaurants and courier services -- has sprung up along Broadway and Eastern Avenue in upper Fells Point.

Here one can buy piquant Mexican chiles and votive candles dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, munch on Salvadoran pupusas (stuffed tortillas) and baby-corn tamales, and ship hard-earned greenbacks home to "la familia" in Central America.

"Now you can't walk down Broadway without bumping into all sorts of Hispanics, and I guess merchants are taking advantage of that," said Sister Mary Neil Corcoran, director of the Spanish Apostolate, which moved a half-dozen years ago to nearby South Wolfe Street to be near the people it serves.

People from Puerto Rico, Peru and points between have converged on upper Fells Point, Baltimore's first true barrio in the making. That is a departure for the area's Hispanic community, which traditionally has been a mix of nationalities inconspicuously scattered around the city and suburbs.

The tiny Mexican village of Chinantla has been partly transplanted over the past two years to the 1700 block of Eastern Ave. Two native sons, Juan Ramos and Heliodoro Bravo, run the Caribbean Market and El Taquito Mexicano Restaurant, respectively. They live above the businesses with their families.

Across the street, Willie Moses, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, has struggled through an icy winter to make his 3-month-old Caribbean Sazon carryout profitable. Like

most of the Latino entrepreneurs, he works long hours for his piece of the American dream.

Around the corner, the east side of the 200 block of S. Broadway is home to Restaurante El Salvador, A & K Botanica, Cafe Latino, two courier services and Rotisseria, which features Peruvian-style roast chicken and is run by a Spanish-speaking Palestinian.

Olinda Oyola opened A & K Botanica, a grocery and video rental place, eight years ago on South Regester Street. She recently moved the store to Broadway and opened Cafe Latino next door.

"There used to be only four or five [Latino] families living on Regester Street," the Peruvian immigrant said. "Now the neighborhood extends from Broadway to Patterson Park."

The Fells Point area was home to just more than 400 of the city's 7,600 Hispanics in the 1990 census, but the head count is widely believed to have missed many of them, especially illegal immigrants.

"This area will be like Columbia Road later on," Ms. Oyola said, referring to the heart of Washington's Latino community.

Other Hispanic businesses -- such as the International Market at 1901 Fleet St. and the Perez Grocery at 530 N. Kenwood Ave. -- serve Southeast Baltimore, recent but growth centers on Broadway and Eastern Avenue.

Probably the oldest Hispanic business in the area, the restaurant at 1717 Eastern Ave. that opened in 1971 as the Spanish Meson, was renamed the Fishery a few years ago. But it still serves paella and roast suckling pig along with American seafood dishes.

The varied businesses attest to Hispanics' diversity. Though many share the Spanish language and the Catholic religion, they speak with distinct accents, dance to different rhythms and enjoy diverse flavors.

Pupusas are for a Salvadoran what tacos are for a Mexican, and neither can adequately substitute for the other, says Heber I. Portillo, the 22-year-old entrepreneur who opened Restaurante El Salvador three months ago on Broadway.

"In Washington, there are probably 15 restaurants like this one," Mr. Portillo said. "But I think I'm the first one over here."

On Eastern Avenue, Willie Moses doesn't view his Dominican cuisine as in direct competition with Heliodoro Bravo's Mexican cooking.

Mr. Moses features dishes such as mofongo (mashed fried plantain with garlic and pork rind), mondongo (tripe soup) and sancocho (beef stew with plantain, yam and yucca).

Mr. Bravo offers tacos, homemade guacamole, spicy and sweet tamales, and specialties such as pozole, a pork-and-hominy soup flavored with onions, oregano, chile and lime juice -- a concoction that in Mexico often caps long nights of tequila drinking.

Perhaps because Mexican food is fast becoming an American staple, Mr. Bravo's clientele is about 70 percent non-Hispanic, while Mr. Moses' customers are largely Latino.

What the two 36-year-old entrepreneurs share is hard work and a drive to succeed.

One night every month, Mr. Moses, who has worked seven days a week since opening Caribbean Sazon, closes up shop at 11 p.m., drives to New York to buy supplies and drives back to Baltimore to man the carryout the next day.

Mr. Bravo followed a cousin to Baltimore five years ago and worked in the kitchen of Jimmy's, a Fells Point eatery. The cousin left, but Mr. Bravo stayed to open El Taquito 14 months ago.

"We saved a little money, so you've got to invest it," he said.

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