I assumed that one of my favorite restaurants had gone out of business in 2002 after the massive new Washington Convention Center gobbled up the location. But I learned recently that the owner, Juanita Garay, had changed the name from Los Planes de Renderos to La Casona when she moved to 1940 11th St. NW, just off of U Street.
Sadly, most of her old customers had no idea that she was still cooking, and business has not been good. So now, more than 26 years after opening one of the first Salvadoran restaurants in the District, she may be forced to throw in the towel.
I thought about simply chronicling the demise of her business: old-fashioned authenticity loses out to cookie-cutter revitalization. But that would mean I'd never get another El San Miguel -- her name for a platter of ginger-spiced fried pork chops smothered in sauteed onions, green peppers and tomatoes.
I also considered doing a lament about Juanita's heartache over the prospect of shutting down her beloved kitchen and about how she probably would take her generations-old recipes -- including ingredients for her special margarita -- to the grave.
But that would be tasteless.
Better to pose as a restaurant critic, I figured, and try to save those endangered platters with a rave review. Juanita liked the idea, and during one of my visits -- for which I paid, of course -- she served up for my consideration a dish of grilled shrimp with a medley of grilled vegetables on a bed of Spanish rice.
To appear expert and objective, I culled from Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink" the vocabulary employed by expert food tasters to describe with precision their reactions to certain foods. The words describe appearance, flavor and texture -- the last of which has as one of its "dimensions," according to Gladwell, "adhesiveness to lips."
Suffice it to say that none of the food stuck to my lips; the tongue refused to let them have that much fun. Lip-smacking good was how I rated the meal.
In a review of Los Planes in 1980, a year after it opened downtown near 11th and K streets NW, then-Washington Post food critic Phyllis C. Richman noted: "No tablecloths. No flowers. Just paper streamers and travel posters of El Salvador. The fanciest fixture at Los Planes de Renderos is the tape deck on the bar, playing Latin music."
The decor at La Casona is not quite so down-to-earth; there are tablecloths. But the menu remains pretty much the same, with only modest price increases. A platter piled high with pork chops and the trimmings costs $10.50; the most expensive item -- grilled shrimp and fish mixed with a fricassee of green peppers, onions and tomatoes -- is $14.75. La Casona has to be one of the best meal bargains in the city.
Juanita's predicament has nothing to do with quality of food or service. It's just that her downtown location was smaller and had a loyal lunch and dinner clientele.
Like so many other small-business owners who get in the way of "progress," however, Juanita was forced to uproot but not given much in the way of compensation or guidance on getting started again.
The best place she could find was larger, far more expensive and located just off the revitalized U Street, where competition among restaurants is keen. Without her old customer base to help her get settled, Juanita's new place has floundered.
Sure, restaurants come and go. But the old spot was not just another restaurant. As the District's immigrant population burgeoned during the past three decades, Juanita's place became a kind of Central American embassy for everyday people, for cultural exchanges that were stripped of the pretense that so often characterizes official Washington.
The District has long been renowned for authentic flavors, in people as well as food. But the loss of home-style family restaurants like La Casona puts the city at risk of becoming bland, like some of those upscale, concrete egg crate condominiums that have become the new hot thing in town.
On Friday night, Juanita will celebrate her 58th birthday at La Casona, with El San Miguels, margaritas and music by the D.C. Latin Jazz All Stars. All are welcomed. As for my review: all stars, too.