Sergio's Place

$$$$ ($14 and under)

Editorial Review

Sergio's: Salvadoran Just for Starters

By Julia Beizer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

At a glance: Walk into Sergio's Place on a slow night and you might feel as though you're rousing the Wheaton restaurant from a slumber. On a recent visit, my date and I shuffled around the empty Salvadoran spot for a few awkward moments before a server appeared and beamed a smile over her hot pink collared shirt. "Hello, babies," she called cheerfully. "Sit anywhere you like!"

There's a faded feeling about the nine-year-old restaurant these days. Aging posters from El Salvador's tourism board line the walls, and a recent decline in business lends a restaurant-that-time-forgot vibe to the eatery.

This is to say that it's not the atmosphere that will drive you into Sergio's Place. It's the simply prepared Latin American food and the friendly service.

On the menu: "When we started, we just wanted to keep it Salvadoran," says Julio E. Cruz, 59, who owns the restaurant with his wife and son. Customer requests led the trio to expand their offerings to include dishes from Mexico, Peru and Cuba. Cruz credits his wife, Marlene, 58, for coming up with the Salvadoran recipes. ("She's the expert in cooking," he says diplomatically.)

Begin with a pupusa. The Salvadoran specialty can be served plain or filled with beans, vegetables, pork or seafood. I fell for the chorizo variety, which had a cheesy interior flecked with bits of sausage. (Don't expect much from the watery red liquid that accompanies the dish; it's basically the definition of "weak sauce.") In the pastelitos guanacos appetizer, a crisp, hot shell of corn dough gives way to a savory hash of pork and potatoes. Enchiladas guanacas, a dish that piles pickled cabbage, hard-boiled eggs and ground beef onto a crispy tortilla, makes another good starter, even if it's a challenge to cut and eat.

Cruz is particularly proud of his chicken with mole poblano sauce and with good reason. The milk-chocolate-colored sauce at Sergio's is a nice balance of sweet and heat, tasting equally good on the chicken as it does on the accompanying yellow rice.

Heat dominates the bistec a la Mexicana, to good effect. Hunks of steak, peppers and onions are served in a fiery red-brown sauce that, even in summer, calls to mind a hearty winter stew.

A slightly sweet dry rub enlivens pork ribs, served sizzling with peppers and onions. A chorizo taco platter -- filled with crumbled sausage and on a plate with beans and rice -- is a filling steal at $7. Both dishes come with the thick, chewy Salvadoran-style corn tortillas that the family makes in-house. (The owners also sell the tortillas and frozen pupusas to markets across the region and operate a small carryout next door to the restaurant.)

At your service: Service is warm at Sergio's. Most waitresses speak limited English, but even as someone who doesn't speak Spanish, I was able to order just fine.

What to avoid: The plantains appetizer is underwhelming, with the fruit cooked to the point of mushiness so that it almost loses its shape. The quesadilla is perhaps a good choice for pickier eaters -- it just lacked the punch of some of the spicier dishes.

Wet your whistle: The margaritas are fine at Sergio's, but peruse the beer list before making that selection. The restaurant offers several imported brews in addition to liquor, wine, juice and soda.

Bottom line: There's nothing about this restaurant's exterior that will draw you in, but the hearty fare and reasonable prices are reason enough to give it a try.