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Bites Nearby: Jose’s Grill – South and Central American Specialties in Downtown Wheaton

Former Hay Adams restaurant captain charts his own culinary course on Georgia Avenue.

In 1982, Jose Cardenas left his native Bolivia to find a better life in America. He found a job at Washington, DC’s Hay Adams Hotel, where he would work for the next two decades, ultimately rising to restaurant captain. His wife, Lourdes, would emigrate in 1983, joining him to live in Silver Spring.

“Jose’s brother had moved to the United States, and told us we had to come,” Lourdes said.

Jose combined the skills he had honed at the Hay Adams with his wife’s love of business, and opened on Sept. 16, 2003. The initial menu was based on American fare, yet Lourdes soon realized that they needed to cater to the Wheaton demographic if they were to survive.

“In the beginning, we were all American food, but that did not work,” she said. “We began to notice that most of the Wheaton population was Central American and South American, so we changed the menu to that.”

Nine years later, the menu still has a Latin focus, and when asked what the most popular item is, Lourdes’ face lit up with a giant smile: “Salteñas!” she exclaimed. The reasonably-priced ($2.50) appetizer is somewhat like a Bolivian pot pie, in a portable form.

“My mom showed me how to make salteñas, and I knew it was something that would be popular in Wheaton," she said.

The browned and crisp exterior guards a treasure of shredded chicken, potatoes, peas, cilantro and an assemblage of spices that are on the sweet side. A small side dish of very spicy Pico de Gallo is available to balance out the flavor profile. A quick search of Google revealed no other restaurants in the area featuring salteñas, but according to Yelp!,  also carries them.

Jose does all of the cooking on Mondays and Tuesdays, and oversees a male-female duo of chefs the other five nights of the week, while Lourdes attends to all of the administrative aspects of the business. “I like everything about business,” she said. “It’s my passion, so much that some weeks I don’t even realize how many hours I work!”

Aside from salteñas, the appetizers include fried calamari, shrimp dishes and salads, ranging from $2.50 to $8.95. There are not distinct lunch and dinner menus, simply entrees (with lunch portions being predictably smaller). The $6.95 lunch special is determined daily, and is only found out with either a phone call for delivery, or by asking at the restaurant (although Lourdes says she may start putting them on the Grill’s Facebook page in the future.)

On this particular Tuesday, the special was a lunch size portion of lomo saltado, which is priced at $12.00. The dish is something like a deconstructed fajita, with seasoned sirloin beef, red bell pepper and onion, but instead of the tortilla as starch, the lomo saltado has strips of fried potato.  

Jose’s other entrees include chicken, pasta, beef, seafood and salads, priced from $8.75 to $20.00. Carnivorous couples will revel in the Parrillada Argentina (Argentinean BBQ) teeming with short ribs, ribeye, pork sausages, sweet bread tripe, blood sausages, potato wedges and a salad, which is listed at $44.99.

Somewhat unusually for a small business in Wheaton, Jose’s maintains a strong online presence, with a robust website, a Facebook page and in the near future, group-buying through either Groupon or Living Social.

“We’ve advertised in the newspaper, on the radio and the yellow pages, but everyone uses those coupons now,” Lourdes said. “I have contacted them, but have not heard back yet. I think they will be very popular, so I hope to hear soon.”

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