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In mid-December 2020, as nighttime temperatures dipped into the low 30s and our emotional state sank even lower in the ninth month of the pandemic, La Brasita’s owners became our caretakers. On Instagram, the family behind this gracious Salvadoran restaurant suggested that a bowl of sopa de res might “take away the stress [and this cold].” The post ended with a cold-face emoji, its clenched teeth the perfect symbol of the country.
It would be several months before I’d sample chef Lucy Campos’s sopa de res, a dish that her son and restaurant manager, David Campos, tells me is one of El Salvador’s great comfort foods. It would, in fact, be summer, under a sweltering sun that typically drains all desire for hot soup. But this hearty bowl — brimming with big, rough-cut vegetables and hunks of chuck, shank, tenderloin and rib — enveloped me like a security blanket nonetheless.
Maybe this idea borders on sacrilege to you, but the first thought that went through my head when biting into the Maryland pupusa at La Brasita was this: It reminds me of crab pretzels, that balance-beam melding of Chesapeake Bay shellfish, salty stadium snack and carny food. My second thought: Why did it take so long for someone in the local Salvadoran community to invent a pupusa stuffed with blue crab, Old Bay and cheese?
The answer to that question may be more obvious than it seems. It required a second-generation Salvadoran American, born in Maryland but with deep affection for the homeland, to make the connection between the Central American street food and steamed blue crabs caked with Maryland’s beloved seasoning. David Campos was the right man at the right time.
Campos isn’t even the chef at La Brasita. His mother, Lucy Campos, handles those duties, and the division of labor here is as clear and bright as the light that pours into this corner cafe in the Red Mill Shopping Center, says his sister, co-founder Tatiana Morales. Morales has final say over the design and social media at the restaurant, which opened last year. David runs the front of the house, and Lucy manages the kitchen. Their neatly defined roles help prevent internecine battles among family members in what could quickly become a tiny war zone inside this Derwood storefront.
And yet, Morales says, each co-founder can propose ideas for other parts of the restaurant, as when David suggested that his mom give Maryland pupusas a try. It was the kind of idea that might never have occurred to Lucy. She’s a native of El Salvador, where, despite a coastline that hugs the Pacific Ocean for many miles, home cooks and street vendors alike tend to avoid seafood when packing their pupusas. Leave it to David, the American-born millennial, to break new ground. He and some friends apparently came up with the hybrid dish.
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As the chef and owner of the successful Rockville restaurant La Brasa, specializing in dishes from all over Latin America since 2006, Lucy Campos decided it was time to expand with a fast-casual version. She and her children, David Campos and Tatiana Morales, opened La Brasita in the former Greatest American Hot Dogs space in Derwood’s Red Mill shopping center last June. The trio signed the deal in February 2019. “We liked the neighborhood, the traffic from Muncaster [Mill Road], that it was an updated shopping center with a McDonald’s, a CVS and a corner space with lots of light,” says Lucy Campos, 58. David, 27, runs the front of the house. Tatiana, 35, designed it. The 1,250-square-foot space seats 30 inside and 20 outside at full capacity.
La Brasita’s clean, modern look utilizes the natural light from its windows and showcases the family’s Salvadoran roots. Morales hand-painted part of El Salvador’s Tazumal ruins in bold blue, pink and orange hues on one wall, and a turquoise-plumed torogoz, El Salvador’s national bird, on another. Reproductions of Mayan statues are on display, acquired on Lucy Campos’ spice-buying trips to El Salvador.
Funding issues delayed La Brasita’s planned November 2019 opening for several months. Once they were ready, COVID arrived. When they opened on June 30 and Montgomery County was at 50% capacity, they were good to go, literally. “Our business plan always had a takeout component, a grab-and-go tacos, pupusas and a drink-and-be-on-your-way place,” David Campos says.
La Brasita’s menu includes ceviche, guacamole with tortilla chips, pupusas (stuffed and griddled Salvadoran corn cakes), quesadillas, chimichangas, burritos, tacos, fajitas, and specialties such as masitas de puerco (fried braised pork cubes) and chicken tamales.
My three tacos, one with shrimp and pickled red onions, one with carne asada (beef) and one with salmon, are each rife with their protein, plus a surfeit of chopped cilantro, radishes and onions. They come on yellow corn tortillas made in-house and with lime wedges and two homemade sauces, one with tomatillos and avocadoes, and one chile pepper-based.
Not surprisingly, given the family’s Salvadoran heritage, La Brasita’s pupusas, served with cabbage slaw, are superlative. David Campos is partial to the Maryland pupusa, stuffed with crab, mozzarella and Old Bay seasoning, which he created as a nod to his dual Maryland and Salvadoran roots.