By Aanisah Husain
When Carlos Alvarado emigrated from El Salvador to the United States, he packed along his selfless nature and willingness to provide. His three restaurants — Comedor San Alejo and Cocineros, both in Hyattsville, and Taqueria Habanero in College Park — are testament to his spirit, dedication and generosity.
“My passion and everything that make me alive, get up in the morning, is cooking for the people,” he said.
Originally from San Alejo, El Salvador, Alvarado came to the United States when he was 17. His sister and other family members lived in the area already, and Alvarado hoped to find opportunities here. He quickly found work at a restaurant, though on low rungs of the industry’s ladder.
“It was so difficult,” he said. “They never saw I was able to do all the things more than cleaning tables or cooking or making salad. They just closed the door, and they didn’t give me the opportunities that I was looking for.”
Alvarado stuck with it, though, and learned along the way.
“I was not working because of the money. I was working because I wanted to learn how to make pastry, how to be a barista,” he said.
Alvarado’s sister opened the original Taqueria Habanero in the District in 2014. Alvarado then went on to open the second branch of Taqueria Habanero in College Park in 2018. All three of his eateries specialize in traditional Latin American cuisine.
As Alvarado made the decision to temporarily close his restaurants due to the pandemic, like so many other restaurant owners, his main concern was not about losing business but rather his employees.
“When you make a decision to close or to open a restaurant, you have a lot of people that [your employees] support,” said Alvarado.
Alvarado credits his employees with the success of his restaurants, all of which have reopened. He goes the distance to treat his employees fairly and well, noting that some of his employees are single mothers — he happily welcomes the kids to hang out in his restaurants while their moms are at work. Alvarado emphasized that he sees his employees as his equals.
“I feel very happy when we get recognized, and people say this is the best El Salvadorian eatery, best Mexican place, it’s the best Latin American place in the area,” he said. “It’s very good when people recognize your effort, your work ethic, the successful of the business, but me particularly, I am very focused on the communities,” he added. “After 22 years working in the restaurant industry, I want to make all the negatives that I passed throughout; I want to make a little positive.”
Alvarado, who has lived in the area for several years, is eager to contribute to his Hyattsville and College Park communities beyond providing food. He believes his experience could be valuable to newcomers in the restaurant industry and envisions mentoring individuals, including partnering with the University of Maryland (UMD) and Catholic University. And he is ready to contribute in more fundamental ways, too.
“If there is any institution or any people who need my support with money or with food or a special request for older people, or any kind of situation,” he said, “I am more than able to do it.”
Gloria Aparicio Blackwell, director of UMD’s Office of Community Engagement, attested to Alvarado’s generosity and sense of community.
“You can pick up the phone and say ‘Hey Carlos. I have this situation,’” Blackwell said. “And without any hesitation, he will say ‘Tell me, Gloria. What is it you want me to do?’” Blackwell said that Thanksgiving has always been a centerpiece for Alvarado. “He’s there to provide that kind of assistance,” she added.
At Thanksgiving, patrons who ordered meals online from Cocineros instead received meals as gifts from Alvarado.
Comedor San Alejo and Cocineros are located on East-West Highway, in Hyattsville, while Taqueria Habanero is at 8147 Baltimore Avenue, right across from The Varsity apartments.