Raul Sanchez and Luis Reyes had been worrying all day about the opening of their new Dupont Circle restaurant, but they began to relax halfway through the dedication ceremony. They were outside, listening to a priest bless the building, when they noticed a crowd forming behind him. As the priest stepped inside, sprinkling holy water left and right, a line of hungry customers followed him in.
For Sanchez and Reyes, the moment was the culmination of years of sweat and struggle. Both men immigrated to the United States with nothing, and when they met at a downtown steakhouse 21 years ago, one was a waiter, the other a dishwasher.
Now, they are longtime business partners. And they just spent $4 million building one of the largest Mexican restaurants in the Washington region--and the first full-service restaurant of any type to be constructed from the ground up in the District in years.
Two decades ago, no smart investor would have risked a venture like the Lauriol Plaza. "Never. It would have been insane," Sanchez said. The fact that he and Reyes are doing so now, with confidence, says volumes about the influence of Hispanic immigration on the nation's capital, the American embrace of Mexican cuisine and the success of a generation of local Latino entrepreneurs.
"This represents the hard work of the Latino community. Not just me and Luis, but all these hundreds of guys who worked with us," said Sanchez, 60, as customers began to fill the 330-seat restaurant at the corner of 18th and T streets NW. "It represents what we can do in America."
In 1962, Sanchez fled Communist-controlled Cuba with just $5 that he had hidden in the lining of his pants. He quickly found work as a waiter at the city's first Cuban restaurant in Adams-Morgan. Six years later, he had saved enough to open a restaurant of his own nearby, serving dishes on paper plates at first. He opened another restaurant in Georgetown five years after that.
But Washington diners weren't ready, and Sanchez went bust months later. He forced himself to start over waiting tables at the Prime Rib restaurant on K Street.
There, he met Reyes, a young Salvadoran who wanted to escape a dead-end future so badly that he had paid $1,500 to be smuggled into America. Reyes was 17 when he left home, and he nearly died in the desert after crossing the Mexican border.
In Washington a year later, Reyes moved into a small studio apartment with eight other men and earned a living washing dishes and cooking at the Prime Rib kitchen. He knew he had made it to a land of plenty when they told him to make potato skins--and just throw away the starchy middles.
By 1979, Sanchez had saved enough money and mustered enough courage to try opening another restaurant. With the help of a loan from the Small Business Administration, he opened La Plaza in Adams-Morgan and hired Reyes as his chef. It almost failed the first year, but then business picked up when they decided to specialize in Mexican food.
Four years later, Sanchez decided to buy another restaurant, the Lauriol Plaza, and he offered Reyes the chance to come in as a partner for $60,000. Reyes jumped at the opportunity, investing his life savings and thousands more borrowed from friends.
The investment paid off. Lauriol Plaza at 18th and S streets NW grew into one of the most popular restaurants in the neighborhood. By 1990, Sanchez and Reyes had made enough money to open an even larger restaurant, which became the immensely popular Tex-Mex eatery on Wisconsin Avenue NW, Cactus Cantina.
A few years later, Lauriol Plaza began to outgrow its space. The restaurant was so busy that customers were often forced to wait two hours for a table. Sanchez and Reyes started looking for a new building, but they wanted something just right: bigger, nearby, with parking, a large kitchen and a storage room.
In the end, they did something no one in Washington has done for years: They built a restaurant from scratch. With the help of an Argentinian American architect, Cuban-born engineers and a big loan from the Adams National Bank, Sanchez and Reyes built just two blocks away, where the old 18th and T Liquors used to sit.
It's a stylish two-story building, with high ceilings, towering windows and the atmosphere of an old Havana cafe. And, without any advance advertising or even a sign outside, throngs of loyal customers showed up Wednesday when it opened for business, including D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
"This is just wonderful," said Williams, a Lauriol regular for six years. "It's a great restaurant, a great new facility for our city, and look, it's packed!"
Across the room, in white slacks and a tan sport coat, Sanchez welcomed guests old and new with his trademark charm, hugging some and slapping others on the back. He was born for this work, he said.
"One of the best human experiences is to sit down, order food, and then eat, drink, talk, relax. I try to provide that," he said.
Explaining his success, Sanchez said: "All you need is one opportunity, and you seize it. You have to have an entrepreneurial drive. You have to take risks."
As Sanchez attended to customers, Reyes was in the kitchen. He has no formal training as a chef, but taught himself the trade by watching colleagues and reading cookbooks he bought in Adams-Morgan. Before opening Cactus Cantina, he worked for three months at one of the most popular Tex-Mex restaurants in Houston to learn from the best.
For years, Reyes was an intense perfectionist who shouted at his staff and regularly worked 16-hour days to make sure everything was just right. His first marriage failed in part because he worked so hard. "Lauriol Plaza was my life, my family," he said.
But now, at age 38, he is more relaxed, more confident. On opening night, orders cascaded out of a computer printer in his kitchen. His staff of 20 stayed on top of it all, each cook focusing on a small task: the grill, the saute pans, the enchiladas, the salads, the deep fry, the prep station.
Almost all of them were young Salvadoran men whom Reyes trained himself, including some who have been with him more than a decade. "It's like a soccer team," he said. "Everybody knows what to do."
In the middle of the dinner rush, Reyes slipped out of the kitchen to survey the bustling dining room. "It feels great. I feel very proud," he said. "When I was growing up in El Salvador, there was no hope for any of this. That's why I'm so grateful to this country."
In front of him, waiters rushed back and forth carrying trays full of burritos, tamales and paella. Bartenders mixed sangria and frozen margaritas. The managers, among them Reyes's wife and Sanchez's daughter and son-in-law, relayed instructions to the staff via walkie-talkies.
And the hostesses were telling customers there was still a two-hour wait for a table.
CAPTION: Co-owner Luis Reyes prepares a dish at Lauriol Plaza with Jaime Mendoza, left and Conrado Gonzales.
CAPTION: Loyal customers began to line up outside the new Lauriol Plaza, even as Father Maximo J. Ortiz blessed the restaurant and sprinkled holy water in the kitchen on its first day of business. Co-owner Raul Sanchez, at right, led the priest on a tour before opening the doors. "This represents the hard work of the Latino community," Sanchez said of the $4 million-dollar restaurant at 18th and T streets NW.