On a recent Friday night, Christmas lights twinkled over the dance floor at Haydee’s Restaurant in Mount Pleasant. In the rainbow glow, Little Red & the Renegades, a steel-drum-powered local zydeco band, ripped through a Bayou-ized version of the Beatles’ “Money (That’s What I Want).”
Among the groovers on the small floor: a middle-aged white couple doing a casual foxtrot and an elderly bow-tied black guy doing something that looks like the Electric Slide. A Hispanic couple, four kids in tow, munched on chips and salsa at a nearby table, one of their sons tapping his toes, the smallest child napping in his mother’s arms.
Such spirited, convivial scenes have been rolling at this down-home hangout at 3102 Mount Pleasant St. NW since 1996, when Haydee (pronounced “eye-day”) Vanegas, who emigrated from El Salvador, opened the place to pay tribute to the cooking and community of her homeland.
“I liked that Mount Pleasant felt like El Salvador, so friendly and with people from so many places,” says Vanegas. “I would be bored somewhere else.”
She converted the turn-of-the-last-century space, which she says was previously a private home and later a strip club, into a folksy hangout with Latin touches: murals of El Salvador, all volcanoes and palm trees; a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe perched, sentinel-like, above the long bar; and a sombrero that gets hauled out when it’s time to sing “Happy Birthday” to a customer.
The menu, a Salvadoran-Mexican mix prepared by Vanegas’s husband, Mario Alas, is long on pupusas and fajitas. The margaritas are strong on tequila.
“I’ve been coming to Haydee’s for years, and I’ve never been able to drink more than one,” says Mount Pleasant resident Viviana Chieme. Like many who bring their kids, she often shows up with her tween daughter. “It feels like a family place, a happy place.” (A second Haydee’s is on Georgia Avenue NW.)
The cultural feel of “Mount P” originated in the 1960s and 1970s, when emigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Cuba settled in the area, many of them living in group houses west of the main drag.
“When I first moved to Mount Pleasant, walking down the street was like a free trip to San Salvador,” remembers historian Mara Cherkasky, who published a book on the area in 2007. “You’d hear so much Spanish you felt like you were in another country.”
Yes, the neighborhood has gentrified and changed quite a bit since the 20th century. Those formerly cheap group houses now usually sell for more than $1 million; some older restaurants and Laundromats have been replaced by upscale grocery stores, a CrossFit-style gym and a soon-to-open art-house cinema.
But the Latin cultural flavor still permeates much of Mount Pleasant Street. The Botanica Boricua (3171 Mount Pleasant St. NW) sells candles emblazoned with Catholic saints and herbs for casting Santería spells. The basement-level Pupuseria San Miguel (3110 Mount Pleasant St. NW) offers cheap beer and the quesadilla-like Salvadoran cheese and meat fare.
At the pan-Latin El Progreso Market (3158 Mount Pleasant St. NW) there’s a butcher and women behind the sales counter who lovingly curate the avocado selection, often refusing to sell you an unripe piece of fruit.
And late some evenings at Haydee’s, the raven-haired owner joins the patrons singing karaoke.
Says Vanegas: “They might sing rock-and-roll, but for me it’s still all about the Spanish ballads I grew up with.”