Patton Avenue is becoming a main drag for Latino food in Asheville. From downtown to Smoky Park Highway, the thoroughfare boasts a variety of Mexican restaurants, including the California-style El Qué Pasa, bakeries like The Azteca, taquerías like Sonora and Tacos Jalisco as well as the unique Taquería Muños, where you can practice ordering your food in Spanish then munch on a tongue taco while watching tortillas being made by hand. And now Patton Avenue also features two eateries — coincidentally situated near each other — that offer a chance to explore the gastronomy of El Salvador.
All in the family
Taste of El Salvador opened two years ago featuring a menu of traditional Salvadoran cuisine. The restaurant is a family business run from the kitchen by Candy Molina. “We are only family here,” says Molina, dismissing her leadership role. “I’m the owner, but it would be nothing without the help of all of them.”
Molina began dreaming of restaurant ownership with a small place in mind. “I asked God to light me up and give me the place where he was going to put me,” says Molina, whose faith is an important part of her life.
Her vision was to showcase authentic Salvadoran food, which is distinct from the Mexican fare many Americans know and love. “As you can see, at the beginning [of the meal] we don’t have any chips, because that’s the way it is in my country,” says Molina. But the biggest difference is in the menu, which is anchored by a variety of pupusas — a round corn or rice cake the size of a tortilla stuffed with cheese, pork, beans or a combination of ingredients, accompanied by vegetables and sauce.
Ivan Daniel Bustillo, Molina’s nephew and a waiter at the restaurant, observes, “In Asheville, there’s a large community of vegetarians and vegans, and I find that pupusas are one of the most popular foods.” The menu also offers tamales, plantains, fried yucca, chicharron (fried pork), parrillada (meat platter) and refrescos, which are natural juices made daily from fresh fruit.
Taste of El Salvador is frequented by customers who are originally from Latin America as well as locals looking for new flavors. “They are curious to try food from a small country like El Salvador,” says Bustillo, who was born in Asheville. “I grew up with that; many people thought that I am Mexican, and they don’t know of other countries in Central America and South America.”
He notes that the restaurant can sometimes double as an educational tool: “It’s an opportunity that people can take to learn from the diversity of Latino culture.”
Molina, having achieved her original dream, is now looking toward bigger goals. “Customers tell me that I need to open downtown,” she says.
Little bits of love
Likewise, Patrícia Sáenz, who opened Pupuseria Patty in May, has already established a good customer base with her unique culinary offerings. Sáenz has roots in both Honduras and El Salvador, and the menu includes food from both countries.
Sáenz began her path to restaurant ownership after some unpleasant interactions with co-workers during three years of employment in the service industry brought her to the brink of depression. “They made me feel like I was not good for anything,” she says, adding that the fact that the unkindness came from fellow Latinos made the situation even harder to bear. “That was the point where I decided to make my own destiny.”
Sáenz found refuge in her faith and a group of friends whom she invited regularly to eat at her house. Eventually, they urged her to go out and start her own food business. “When they tried my food, they asked what was in it, and I said, ‘Little bits of love,’” she says.
At first, Sáenz pursued entrepreneurship by selling her food to neighbors and friends, then she eventually made plans to borrow money and start a food truck with a business partner. After that deal fell through, a friend told her about an opportunity to open a brick-and-mortar eatery in the space at 1563 Patton Ave., which was previously occupied by a tortilleria. With help from friends and family, she made it all come together within a couple of weeks.
Pupuseria Patty’s menu features Salvadoran and Honduran dishes like baleadas, which are thick flour tortillas filled with beans, avocado, sour cream and either eggs, meat, chorizo or chicken. Another highlight is the Salvadoran breakfast of scrambled eggs mixed with tomatoes, bell peppers and onions served with refried beans, fried plantain, sour cream, Salvadoran cheese, avocado and tortillas. Also on the menu is mariscada, a seafood soup.
Like the clientele at Taste of El Salvador, Sáenz’s customers tend to be people who are curious about new flavors. “They come to try and stay forever,” she says. Both restaurant owners say their businesses attract diners not just from Western North Carolina, but from as far away as Tennessee and South Carolina on the weekends.
Despite the challenges she faced working in the hospitality industry and getting her business off the ground, Sáenz says she carries no grudges and acknowledges that her path has a purpose. “It has been the place where God has blessed me,” she says. Today she employs a mostly female staff and is proud to offer quality food and service. “I told my employees to treat costumers like they want to be treated,” she says.
After only a few months in business, her success is prompting her to consider expansion. “This is my first year, and I believe this year we will open a second restaurant,” she says, although she has announced no details yet about those plans.
Faith, hard work and the desire to make their dreams come true are the ingredients both Sáenz and Molina used to get their neighboring businesses off the ground. And as their respective clienteles grow, they continue to showcase the diversity of Latin cultures to be found in Asheville — particularly on Patton Avenue.
Taste of El Salvador is at 1565 Patton Ave. Pupuseria Patty is at 1563 Patton Ave.