Underneath its pagoda-style roof, Casablanca brims with Latin flavor. On any given weekend night, patrons will see Jeff Song, born and raised in Korea, presiding over his club, a former Japanese restaurant turned Latino nightclub in a previously white exurban outpost.
"You don't really have to be a Latino person to run a Latino joint," said Song, 33. "It's really the atmosphere that most people care about."
In April, Song opened Casablanca in the former Edoya Japanese Steak House along strip-mall-lined Route 28, outside Manassas Park. The restaurant is open daily and serves mostly Salvadoran food. Every server speaks Spanish. The menu is in Spanish, and the jukebox plays Spanish-language music. The chef is Salvadoran.
The Salvadoran eatery with the Japanese roof has sparked curiosity and confusion from potential customers. Although the name "Casablanca" might conjure images of Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and North Africa, Song said he chose it because in Spanish it means "white house," and the restaurant was to be painted white. Well, sort of. "Casa blanca" -- as two words, not one -- means "white house." And the restaurant hasn't yet been painted white.
"It definitely stands out, the way it looks in Manassas," Song said of the restaurant's architecture.
Inside, Casablanca has been stripped of its Japanese past. Its dance floor is framed by wooden arches that have been painted navy blue. It took four months to renovate Casablanca, and Song said he used a Korean contractor, making the restaurant "a Korean contractor's interpretation of how a Latin dance stage would look like."
"They told me the Latin culture is all about blue. I don't know where they came up with that. But I told them, 'I respect that,' " Song said.
Song was born in Seoul and came to this area in 1987 when he was 16. His family owned a small deli in Sterling, where they served simple Latino dishes.
Even then, they attempted some cultural synthesis. For instance, they sometimes used a Korean marinade on the beef. "That was a joint effort, Korean-Salvadoran-fusion kind of menu, made in America," said Song, who now lives in Centreville.
Song's mother, Jane Lee, learned some Spanish phrases and was fluent enough to joke with customers. The family got to know their patrons and developed friendships, Song said, so when they flirted with opening their own Latino restaurant, their customers encouraged them.
Song opened Casablanca to reach the growing population of Latinos in the outer suburbs. He saw an untapped market: a young community with disposable income and nowhere to spend it.
The former steakhouse seemed perfect because of its location on busy Route 28, a main thoroughfare where commuters spend hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic each day, giving them a chance to notice Casablanca's quirky sign -- a blue- and red-lettered square that has two chili peppers pointing out from its C.
Whether the family's business will thrive remains to be seen, but, because they are not Latino, they could run into some problems, said Juan Laguna, owner of Maxwell's, a restaurant by day and family-oriented dance club on weekend nights.
"The owner has to know the way the Spanish like their food," Laguna said, noting that different nationalities -- whether Ecuadorean, Salvadoran or Nicaraguan -- have a different taste for certain foods. "If I am a Korean and open a restaurant because there's a market, how can I know if the food tastes really good?" he asked.
Song has hired two Hispanic professionals to supervise the food.
But money is money.
"Anybody here can do whatever is necessary to make money," said Felix Vargas, whose Manassas club Mexico Lindo closed last month. "Regardless if they don't know the culture, they're making money from the Latino people."
Song said he initially felt a bit uncomfortable creating a space for a culture he's not a part of.
"At first, I really couldn't deny that I was this Korean guy trying to get into their community to do some business," said Song, who graduated from George Mason University with a major in international studies and a minor in Japanese. "So far the feedback has been very positive. We haven't had anybody complain."
Casablanca has steadily grown into a weekend destination for Latino clubgoers looking for music variety and a safe place to party. Some restaurants in the area, including Mexico Lindo, have had difficulties with crime. Casablanca employs a security team every night.
Friday, Saturday and sometimes Sunday nights bring re-mixed salsa to the disco-ball-topped dance floor, causing the ground to shake with a heavy bass beat.
Junior Medrano, 22, of Falls Church has been going to Casablanca for several weeks but only recently realized that an Asian American family owned it.
"I didn't care," said Medrano, a construction worker who drives about 35 minutes to Manassas to dance. "Working in construction, it's a good way to get rid of stress."