Salvadoran engineer becomes Riverdale Park barbecue master
BY HUNTER SAVERY
Fernando Gonzalez isn’t a chef. He isn’t from Texas, either. And yet, this civil engineer from El Salvador is the culinary force behind what some call the DMV’s best Texas-style barbecue.
On paper, Riverdale Park’s 2Fifty Texas BBQ should have never gotten off the ground. However, the dedication and sheer will of husband-and-wife duo Fernando Gonzalez and Debby Portillo have made it an undeniable success.
In spite of opening near the start of the pandemic, a difficult time to run a business anywhere, 2Fifty went on later that year to be ranked the No. 1 barbecue restaurant in the D.C. area by The Washington Post. The restaurant would get that nod again in 2022.
2Fifty now has a second location at D.C.’s Union Market, and the couple has taken over Dumm’s Pizza & Subs in Riverdale Park, which was also highly rated by The Post.
So how does a Salvadoran civil engineer become Washington’s guru of Texas barbecue? For Gonzalez, it all started with a business trip to Austin, Texas, in 2014. At the time, Gonzalez worked for a shipping company that moved goods between El Salvador and Texas. In Austin, Gonzalez experienced Texas barbecue for the first time, and he left a changed man.
“That was a life-changing experience. You need to consider that we have no tradition of smoking meats in El Salvador,” said Gonzalez. “For us, barbecue or barbacoa is really grilling. It’s cooking over a coal bed or using a live fire, which is great, but you won’t see a 500-gallon offset smoker cooking on the corner.”
He said he was equally drawn to the hospitality of barbecue culture. “It’s like a community. The camaraderie around the smokehouse in Texas really attracted me,” said Gonzalez.
Barbecue became a fixation for him. Back in El Salvador, he set out to recreate the barbecue for himself. He said he even had a friend weld together a makeshift smoker out of a propane tank.
After some practice, Gonzalez made his first attempt at professional barbecue. He started a business selling smoked meat, primarily to the community of American expatriates in San Salvador. The city is home to one of the busiest U.S. embassies in Central America, so there was a large community excited to find American barbecue on the menu, he said.
Gonzalez’s neighbors were far less enthusiastic. They complained about the smoke from the smoker and the smokiness of the food. Gonzalez said he even had the police called on him.
There were other challenges that went with trying to run a Texas-style barbecue business in El Salvador. Butchers simply didn’t make the cuts for brisket that Gonzalez was looking for, the types of wood needed for an authentic flavor were unavailable, and there were all sorts of issues with refrigeration and quality, he said.
“We were going to the butcher shop, and I was showing them pictures — like, ‘This is the cut that I need,’” said Gonzalez. “The butcher would tell me, ‘Well I can make that for you, but this is not what we do here.’ At the beginning, the brisket was a complete disaster.”
These challenges and the deteriorating political and economic situation in El Salvador led Gonzalez and Portillo to start thinking about making a change. In 2018, they decided to move to the U.S. After consulting with a friend who does market research, they decided the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region was their best option. The couple sold everything they owned except the smoker and headed for Riverdale Park with B-1 visas, which classified them as temporary business visitors.
Portillo said, “When people ask us how long ago we came to the states, and we say, ‘We came in 2018,’ they correct me and say, ‘Do you mean 2008?’ And I say, ‘No, no — we really just moved.’”
At the Riverdale Park Farmers Market, Gonzalez’s barbecue quickly developed a following. They started selling at the farmers market just after Thanksgiving, and by spring, they were collaborating with businesses like Streetcar 82 Brewing Co. for pop-up events, further raising their profile. According to Portillo, the hype started when they began selling out of all of their meat early in the day, and people knew they had to come early or pre-order to get anything.
Portillo said, “[Our customers] saw us at the market during the winter, fall, spring and the terrible days of summer. They’ve seen it all, and I think they respect that, and it’s something that connects us with the community. “
It wasn’t long before Gonzalez and Portillo were looking for a brick-and-mortar location.
The process of finding a location and getting approval took over a year, Gonzalez said. By the time 2Fifty was ready to open its doors, it was April 2020. COVID-19 restrictions meant that there wasn’t a sit-down restaurant open anywhere in the state, and many people were afraid to even leave their homes.
Gonzalez and Portillo said they knew they had to push on or lose everything. Their ability to remain in this country depended on their restaurant being a success. Their B-1 visas had been converted to L-1A visas, a status usually reserved for multinational executives, but which allowed them to remain in the country and potentially pursue citizenship as long as they kept providing jobs. So 2Fifty put out the call on social media that they would be open for carryout, and Gonzalez and Portillo waited and hoped.
To their surprise, they said, on opening day there was a line down the block, and by sheer luck, a writer from Eater DC was there.
As lockdown restrictions eased, 2Fifty has been able to open for in-person dining. 2Fifty now has 35 employees, working between the original Riverdale Park location and a smaller space in Union Market serving a pared-down menu.
In spite of the accolades, Gonzalez comes across as less of a master chef than an obsessive fan of barbecue. My conversation with Gonzalez and Portillo took place just hours before they headed to Texas to learn even more from the experts. He said over and over again, “We’re still learning.”