Q&A with a restaurateur: El Balcon

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By Angela Dice, Special to Kitsap Sun

One of Bremerton’s popular lunch What started as cookouts with family and friends became a food cart and then a brick-and-mortar business in downtown Bremerton that regularly draws a line of lunchtimes patrons on weekdays.

El Balcon’s owners Mario and Ofelia Amaya make food that draws from their family backgrounds. Mario’s parents hail from El Salvador while Ofelia’s family ran restaurants in Mexico.

It wasn’t always easy, Mario explained in an interview with Kitsap Sun, but they’re building a businesses with a lot of faith and help from family and community members. It involved commuting from their home in Tacoma, homelessness while caring for their five children.

Q: How did you decide what food to serve?

Amaya: There’s a lot of Mexican restaurants, fewer Salvadoran restaurants, but I said, “Honey, there is no black and white between us, we’re one. So, let’s bring it together and make Salvadorian and Mexican together.” … We also have Spanish influence from my mother’s side. There are plates that we don’t even sell here, and a lot of food that we don’t sell here because there’s a lot of preparation, a lot more. But eventually we will one day.

Q: Do you find you have to explain your menu to a lot of people?

Amaya: Sometimes. They don’t know what a pupupsa is. So, I think we’re the first pioneers of Salvadoran food on this side. Pupsas, that was a hard one for people to grasp, even to say the word. We do explain more of Salvadorian food.

Q: So, what’s in a pupsa?

Amaya: The pupsa is made with masa (a corn-based dough). El Salvador is known for the pupusas because everywhere you go in El Savador, you’re going to find pupusas.

What the pupsa has you have a variety. It’s pretty much masa, you bowl it up and you prepare your meat, your ingredients, you prepare everything that goes into that meat. like chicharrón, which is pork. You prepare your cheeses. You mix them, put into the middle of the masa, bowl it and make it into a pancake form and put it right on the grill. What it does is it melts everything right together.

You could do cheese and spinach. There’s another one that we do where we mash up black beans by hand and then get to a dry paste, and we put chicharrón and cheese.

We haven’t brought these out, but we do also do zucchini with garlic and onion with cheese, we put that in the middle. That’s a pupusa. Then we make a curtido, and that’s a cabbage that we marinate, we let that cabbage ferment for awhile. We let that sit, get it marinated, and you put that on top of the pupusa with that red sauce that we make called salsa tomate.

Q: You started selling out of a food cart in Bremerton. Tell me about that experience.

Amaya: The experience, it was it was wonderful … I never thought would take us this far. Our goal and our dream was to have a place of our own, to be indoors. But it was beautiful. The experience was beautiful.

I still miss it because I’m one-on-one with people outside, to see people outside, to be in the weather. You know, you see many interesting things outside. People come up to you and tell you their problems. It was more than just selling food. It was a lot more. I was able to help people, give them food.

There was a woman that was, she was married for like 20-something years, and she had just gone through a divorce and she came down. And I’ll never forget this day because they just had done signing of papers, and she was just heartbroken. She had just flowers in her hands, and she said, “Can I just get a plate of food.” She goes, “Here, I have no money, but here, take this.”

I was like, don’t worry m’am, you can have anything you want, but before I say you can have anything you want, she just left. And I was like m’am, please, come back, and she came back. I said, ask for anything, and she she did. And she just broke down in tears. We prayed for her, I prayed with her, and we held hands.

So, I mean, those are the moments, the beautiful moments that I can say the experience of being outside and selling the food, it was more than just food. It was actually reaching out to people, and vice, versa,  them reaching out to us.

No matter if it rained or hard winds. Or If it was cold outside or hot, people would still come out. They would meet us one-on-one out there. And that just showed the love. It showed the how do you say, the sacrifice for them to come out. But I knew we had to meet them out there. It’s like a family thing. The experience was wonderful. Does that make sense?

Angela: It does.

Amaya: That’s exactly why I never wanted to give up. Because of that lady coming down, because of a young man saying, “I’m hungry, and if I had money I would buy it.” I said, no, come back here and eat. Eat.

Young boys with no parents who grew up here in Bremerton, having no hope sometimes, in and out of jail. I give them hope. I give them hope not just because it’s me or my wife, but it’s love. It’s because a plate of food will go a long way. It fills a stomach, and it helps them look forward to another day. Doing those things, and seeing that stuff was just a blessing. It was just a complete blessing.

Our main goal and our dream is yes to expand, but that’s not what it is. What is is is this: to help the needy, to help the poor, help those who are not just monetarily wise or economically wise but emotionally, people that have lost hope, people who have lost all desire to keep pushing. My wife and I and what we do and the team that we have, we want to make sure that they can say that they have a lot more to look forward to.

Not long ago, my wife and I were homeless.

Q: You were homeless?

We were homeless and we had lost everything. The thing is, by losing everything, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to us. It wasn’t by choice that we lost it all, it was the economy that  hit hard.

We were traveling from Tacoma to Bremerton back in 2010, back and forth. We had to stop because of some issues that arose. By stopping, that was our only source of income. By that happening, it broke us because there was no work out there.

But God never let us go. We always had faith. We had each other. We had the Lord on our side, and I never gave up on the city. I said I know the city, the people outside from the shipyard to Norm Dicks. All the ones that know us love us, and we love them. They surely wouldn’t give up on us, and we wouldn’t give up on them.

…  My wife and I would like to start sending clothes to the needy in distant countries, and helping the needy here in Bremerton. In the Philipines there’s a lot of hungry kids. In El Salvador, where my parents are from, there’s a lot of need over there. In Mexico, there’s a lot of hurt and pain. I see the need, whether it’s a bowl of rice and beans. …These kids need hope. And I believe that God allowed us to lose everything to go down to this point and to come right back up … only by his hand we came back up, but not for us. It’s to give right back out again …

Q: How did you decide to come to Bremerton?

Amaya: It was back in 2008, my cousin and I did a job out here. He was inspecting sewer lines. We came out one day. They were fixing Pacific Avenue … I’d never been to Bremerton … That day I came here, I’ll never forget it. I looked around at all these tall buildings. I saw the gate where the shipyard was on the main street. I saw he ferry terminal, and I was like this is such a beautiful city, to me. I was like, wow, this is beautiful … It was like a little bomb ignited in my chest. I always thought about this place. But something in me just blew up at that point in time. I saw a lot of potential, an I see a lot of potential in this city… after that, it went on from there.

Q: When did you decide to open in this location?

Amaya: There were other places that were opening, we were still outside selling food. I was patient. I’ve always been patient. I said God, open the right place at the right time. Don (Stauff) from Boston’s, God Bless him, he said, “Hey, Mario there’s a place that might be coming open here soon. Be patient, you just never know.” …

He brought me up. I spoke with the owner of this building. He said I see you have a little crowd out there, and he said well, how would you like to give it a shot. I was like, serious? Wow. Thank you.

He gave us the opportunity. I sad I’m going to pray about it. It was new to me, I don’t know, I didn’t have all the money, so I can’t just say yes. I thank God that I said yes. I spoke to my pastor about it … customers and brothers and sisters and family came together and they helped us. This was how we did it.

Q: Tell me about the name (“El Balcon” means the balcony).

Amaya: When we lived in Tacoma, and on our balcony is where we cooked our food. When I had no job and I fell sick, and my wife had to leave her job to take care of me. It was more the stress of everything crashing down. I had about a foot or foot and a half and like 8 inches or maybe a foot by a foot skillet, and I asked my uncle if we could borrow it. What I would do is, we would go to church, and I would ask people, invite brothers and sisters over, and we would cook for them. It was always our passion. We always loved to serve people.

One day, one of the guys said Mario, why don’t you try selling this food? And I was like no, I just like to cook. Well, times were getting hard. aTimes were really getting hard. So I told my wife I was going to ago knock on businesses doors and ask if they wanted to buy our food. It came to be a tradition with broths and sisters from church. A few of them would come over after church and want to eat our food and told us you should call it El Balcon.

On Saturday, you would see people driving. They would honk their horn and say, “I’m coming in.” They would ask for pupusas, and we would have it ready for them….It was beautiful, you could see the clouds of smoke off the balcony. That’s where it was born. We don’t ever forget those days.

It’s awesome because my wife, when we started selling more and more, I took a measurement from one side of the wall to the other side of the wall … From one end to the other was about 2 1/2 feet. I went and bought some iron and went and made my own skillet. I measured a it just to fit the balcony, and that’s the same skillet that we would bring outside here to Bremerton…I couldn’t afford to buy a $200 burner. my uncle knows how to weld, so he welded pieces together…To sit here and know where we came from, God, that’s beautiful.

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