A cuisine of tamales, spring rolls and a lot of heart

November 26, 1994|By Jim Bock | Jim Bock,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore's first Salvadoran-Chinese restaurant might sound like a gastronomical oddity, but nothing could have come more naturally to proprietor and chef Miguel Angel Rivera.

Mr. Rivera, 41, a Salvadoran immigrant, spent a decade as a dishwasher, busboy, waiter and cook in Chinese restaurants before launching his own enterprise this month.

Restaurante San Luis, his fledgling business at 246 S. Broadway in Upper Fells Point, is a blend of his culinary experiences. It serves up tamales and spring rolls, sopa de mondongo (tripe soup) and kung pao chicken, all with equal gusto.

Mr. Rivera worked 12-hour days in a Chinese restaurant in Baltimore County, then mopped floors on the lobster shift at the Social Security Administration to save the cash to start the restaurant.

He came to the United States from El Salvador in 1984, moving first to Springfield, Va., then to the Baltimore area.

He and two investors, his brother Mario Rivera and Fidel Diaz, have poured $81,000 into the business -- refurbishing the Broadway storefront, installing a commercial kitchen, and painting the pressed tin walls in shades of peach and pink. It opened Nov. 1.

"If I lose this, I'll lose everything I've made in my life," Mr. Rivera said.

"This is my first and last dream. When I opened this business, I had $100 in my pocket and $1,000 in bills waiting for me. In this building I put my heart."

The investment seems to be paying off. On a rainy Monday afternoon, a steady stream of customers -- mainly young Salvadorans -- came through the door to sample Mr. Rivera's cuisine, hear some Central American tunes and generally feel at home.

Mr. Rivera, an imposing figure at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, is well known among Salvadorans in the Baltimore area. He was among the first Latino immigrants to work in Chinese restaurants here, and for years he has informally linked Salvadoran workers and Chinese employers.

A former professional soccer player in El Salvador, he founded the Salvadoran Soccer Club, a 12-team summer league that plays at Patterson Park in East Baltimore and at various other fields around the Baltimore Beltway.

Mr. Rivera has also organized local Salvadorans to buy hospital supplies and other necessities for San Miguel province, a war-ravaged area of eastern El Salvador that is home to many of them.

His restaurant is named for his hometown, San Luis de la Reina, which was temporarily abandoned when it became a no man's land during the decade-long Salvadoran civil war.

Jose Ruiz, executive director of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs, is a fan of the Salvadoran entrepreneur. He says Mr. Rivera typifies the hard-working Latino immigrants who have infused the 200 block of S. Broadway and parts of Eastern Avenue in Upper Fells Point with new vitality.

"I see him as a role model for blue-collar Central American workers out there, and most importantly, I see him playing a role in organizing the merchants," Mr. Ruiz said.

"He knows his business, is real personable, likes to deal with people, and he's true blue."

Mr. Rivera hopes to help organize a block party next year on South Broadway and he said he expects Restaurante San Luis' basement room to become a community meeting place.

But for now, he and his wife, Esteli, who waits on tables, are trying to make a success of selling pupusas (corn tortillas stuffed with pork or cheese) and shrimp toast, pollo en crema (chicken cooked with sour cream and vegetables) and Szechuan pork.

Mr. Rivera often says that his body is in the United States but his heart is in El Salvador. Yet he harbors no illusions about returning to live in his native land.

Three years after the end of the civil war, he says, El Salvador is still a dangerous place, especially for expatriates returning from the United States, who are presumed to have money. Just this fall, Mr. Rivera's 33-year-old cousin was killed in a robbery after going home to San Luis de la Reina from the United States.

Mr. Rivera sold property that he inherited in El Salvador to raise cash for the business. A permanent resident here, he is applying for U.S. citizenship.

Now his focus is squarely on Restaurante San Luis and on Upper Fells Point. He hopes to help build a strong Hispanic community there that would be a magnet attracting lovers of Latin American food and culture from around metropolitan Baltimore.

He has rented an apartment nearby for the baby sitter of his children, Paola Elena, 3, and Miguel Angel, 2, so that the busy family can at least eat meals together at the restaurant.

Once he achieves financial stability, Mr. Rivera hopes to adopt two Salvadoran children.

"I'm not looking for big money. I want to try to make a living and support my family," he said. "In the future, I hope that one of my babies will become a professional."

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