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Cocineros in Hyattsville breaks the mold for pan-Latin restaurants

From left, Dio Montero, his wife Mirna Montero-Alvarado and her brother Carlos Alvarado in the dining room at Cocineros. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

The word “cocineros” can be translated as either “cook” or “chef” in English, but to Carlos Alvarado’s mind, there’s no question how the three people behind Cocineros Modern Latin Eatery in Hyattsville decode the term. They’re cooks all the way. They have never aspired to the title of chef, even if they have been called one at various points in their careers, sometimes in this very space.

You might recognize their names: Alvarado, sister Mirna Montero-Alvarado and her husband, Dio Montero. They’re the trio behind some of the finest Mexican and Salvadoran establishments in the area, places such as Comedor Y Pupuseria San Alejo, Tequila and Mezcal and two Taqueria Habanero locations. The three have followed a path familiar to countless immigrant restaurateurs: They migrated from their home countries (the Alvarado siblings from El Salvador, Montero from Mexico), worked their way up in the local hospitality industry and saved enough to start their own places.

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Their experiences have made them leaders and teachers in their own restaurants, which is technically what the term “chef” means, right? The chief, or head, of the kitchen. But in practice, the trio understands chefs are a class of cooks, often placed above others in ways that can erase the work and creativity of those who toil under them, as we have seen in restaurants around the country. The owners behind Cocineros want to flatten the hierarchy of their kitchen, and the first way to do so was to eliminate the term chef.

“Cooks sounds better for us. The name ‘cooks’ is not too high for us,” Alvarado tells me during a phone interview. “I’m just considered a professional cook even though I have to be a leader … For me, I don’t want titles. I want to be working on something that I really love and teach people how to do things.”

Alvarado also wants the cooks at Cocineros to feel empowered, to know they have an equal voice in the kitchen. Each line cook has the ability to create a dish for the restaurant whose name honors their very presence, the co-owner says, even if the start-up menu has been largely pieced together by Alvarado himself, with assists from his sister and his brother-in-law on the taco options, which remains a strength here as it is at Taqueria Habanero.

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But more than that, Cocineros does something I’ve never seen before: It expands the pan-Latin eatery beyond its usual boundaries to include dishes more aligned with the United States, like a juicy strip steak cooked medium-rare but served with pico de gallo and a fat lime wedge, or a generous, delicious Maryland crab cake bound with breadcrumbs and shot through with Dijon mustard and hot sauce. These additions are tacit acknowledgment of a well-known fact: Men and women from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and other Latin American countries prepare much of the food we consume at restaurants, no matter the cuisine. Their gastronomic knowledge knows no borders, so why should their restaurants?

The Cocineros menu borrows from South America, with a line of empanadas built with these flaky, gossamer wrappers that Alvarado imports from Argentina. First among equals is the beef empanada, an impossibly thin shell that conceals a glistening mixture of meat and vegetables, which hums with the steady current of a Chilean spice blend. Dunk the turnover into the housemade aji amarillo sauce, with peppers direct from Peru, and notice how worlds collide in this sensational appetizer.

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Mexico and El Salvador are represented via the taco and pupusa menus, respectively. The tortillas are made in-house with masa harina, while the griddle cakes are formed by hand until they’re simultaneously thin and plump with your chosen filling. The kitchen doesn’t tinker too much with tradition with the latter, but the cooks do offer what they call a “green pupusa,” a browned cake that you split open to discover a lava flow of cheese spiked with zucchini, spinach and pieces of garden-fresh basil. It totally works.

The Latin street food section of the menu is a royal court of kings and jesters. The gorditas and tostones are fine specimens of the street vendor’s craft, especially the fried green plantains, which are pressed thin and topped with crumbles of queso fresco that begin to lose their form on the hot surface. These dignified bites, alas, share the same real estate with such comic foils as elotes locos and salchipapas, the latter of which is a combination of housemade fries and sliced hot dogs melded together with cheese, mayo, ketchup and mustard. It looks like two fans collided on the concourse at a Nats game. It tastes slightly better.

Cocineros sometimes shines when you least expect it. It might be that crab cake. Or it might be the Cocineros hot dog topped with sauteed cabbage. (I’m not kidding!) Or it might be the kitchen’s take on steak and cheese. The sandwich has only a passing acquaintance with the Philly original: Rather than layering sliced rib-eye, provolone and softened onions into an elastic Amoroso’s roll, Cocineros slips browned slices of Angus flap steak into a custom roll from Lyon Bakery and then promptly smothers the meat with white American cheese, bell peppers, ketchup and mustard. It sounds like a disaster, but it’s a dream floating on a Lyon loaf, as light and airy as a warm dinner roll.

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One of my favorite bites is a Oaxacan snack known as molotes. These orbs of fried plantain dough crack open to reveal a dark cache of refried black beans. Molotes specialize in contrasts: sweet and savory, soft and crispy, modest and amazing. The only problem? At present, molotes are found just on the specials menu, that one place where chefs really show off their creativity. Or, in this case, where the cooks do.

Cocineros Modern Latin Eatery

3513 East-West Hwy. Hyattsville, Md., 240-487-6168, cocinerosmd.com.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

Prices: $2.50 to $21 for all items on the menu.

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