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Here’s how to eat like a world traveler — without leaving the area

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Are you itching to explore the world, but still worry about international travel? You may not be able to visit exotic locales, but you can go on a culinary journey in Northern Virginia by visiting these ethnic restaurants owned by local Catholics.

El Salvador — Pupusas Express 

Located at 7770 Richmond Highway, Alexandria, VA 22306, and other locations. 

If you want to sample the national dish of El Salvador, look no further than Pupusas Express, a friends-and-family-owned chain with four Northern Virginia locations. Siblings Julia and Cesar Argueta, parishioners of Good Shepherd Church and St. Louis Church in Alexandria respectively, own and operate the Alexandria location. Their parents and siblings pitch in too — “it's basically the whole family,” said Julia. 

The siblings grew up in El Salvador and came to the United States as teenagers. Both had years of experience in the food industry before opening Pupusas Express in the fall of 2019. “I like being around food, trying new things in the kitchen,” said Julia. Cesar likes interacting with the customers. “I have a passion for service,” he said. “People tend to appreciate when they are well-fed and well-served.” 

While they offer other dishes, the pupusa is their bread and butter, said Cesar. They serve around 400 a day. The process starts with corn-based, or sometimes rice-based, dough. Cheese is added, and often other ingredients such as beans, pork or “loroco,” an edible flower that grow in El Salvador. Then the dough and filling mixture is flattened, fried and served with a tomato salsa and “curtido” — a pickled cabbage salad similar to cole slaw. 

“It’s the most popular item in (El Salvador),” said Cesar. “We keep it authentic, (and) it’s delicious.”

Ethiopia — Vera’s Kitchen 

Located at 9255 Center St., Manassas, VA 20110.

The Amharic word for joy — “desta” — is prominently featured on the Vera's Kitchen sign in downtown Manassas. Owner Veronica Musie’s joy is evident when you walk into her cozy eatery. “It's not like work — my customers are family,” said Musie. “We want them to feel joy and happiness here.”

Vera’s Kitchen serves Ethiopian food as well as American and Italian fare. Musie, a geologist turned stay-at-home mom turned restaurant owner, is Eritrean but grew up in Addis Ababa, the capital of neighboring Ethiopia. She lives with her husband and fellow restaurateur, Eddy, in Manassas with their three boys. The family attends All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas.

Vera’s Kitchen in Manassas serves traditional Ethiopian food as well as American and Italian fare. ZOEY MARAIST  | CATHOLIC HERALD

veras 68Musie says everyone should try Ethiopian food because it’s healthy, vegetarian friendly and very tasty. “We still eat like back in those good times,” she said, citing the culture’s time-honored, slow-cooking, spice-filled culinary traditions. Plus, as Ethiopians go vegan during Lent, there are plenty of meat-free options. “It’s the most fantastic restaurant for those of us who are vegans in this area,” said customer Kevin McGee. “The lentil hummus is exceptional.” 

Patrons are encouraged to use “injera,” a traditional type of spongy brown bread, to move the prepared collard greens, chickpeas or lamb from their plates into their mouths. “It’s an experience,” said Musie. “We bring you a fork in case of an emergency. (But eating with your hands), there’s more love in it, you know?”


Italy — The Portofino Restaurant

Located at 526 South 23rd St., Arlington, VA 22202.

First, Richard Micheli’s father, Sergio, came to the United States. Then, his grandfather Adelmo followed, seeking job opportunities in the restaurant business. In 1970, Adelmo opened the Portofino Restaurant in Crystal City with the help of Sergio and his wife, Pilar. For the past 51 years, thousands of patrons have enjoyed the northern Italian cuisine the family has cooked up. 

Today, Richard is both chef and owner of the restaurant he grew up working in. Though he now lives in Washington, as a child his family attended Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Arlington. He attended St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington and graduated from Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria. In the past, Portofino has hosted Ireton fundraising events, and the Serra Club, which supports religious vocations, often holds its luncheons there. “We still try to give back to the Catholic diocese here,” said Richard. 

Richard loves cooking, but also spending time with the people he nourishes. “(I enjoy) meeting the customers and being a host in what we consider our home,” he said. He’s greatly missed those interactions over the past year, though now some indoor seating is available. “Yes, we’re making it through with carryout and delivery but that’s not why we got into the business of being restaurateurs,” he said.  

The Portofino serves many dishes you’d expect to see on the menu of an Italian restaurant, but also three special dishes created by Richard’s grandfather. The “Bocconcini dello Chef” is braised, stuffed veal; the “Pollo Portofino” is chicken breast filled with prosciutto, spinach and cheese, and the “Omaggi di Nettuno” is seafood and mushrooms in a brandy cream sauce. “They harken back to the traditional days of Italy, and my family tradition,” said Richard. “You won’t find them anywhere else and they’re very good.”

Bishop Emeritus Paul S. Loverde is a big fan. "Portofino is a restaurant where the food is excellent, but more importantly, where you are welcomed warmly and treated with great respect and care," he said.  

Lebanon — Lebanese Taverna

Located at 5900 Washington Boulevard, Arlington, VA 22205, and other locations.

Tabouleh — a kind of parsley salad — is a traditional Lebanese dish. ZOEY MARAIST  | CATHOLIC HERALD

tabouleh 109 Every afternoon, Grace Abi-Najm Shea would walk the mile from St. Ann School in Arlington to her parent’s Washington Boulevard restaurant, Lebanese Taverna. When her parents and their five children moved to the United States from Lebanon in 1979, “they didn’t speak any English and had no money,” said Shea. “They worked odd jobs until my dad saw a little pizza place in his neighborhood for sale and we started Lebanese Taverna. It was his way of keeping his country close to us.”

Shea grew up at the restaurant that she and her four siblings now own and operate. Lebanese Taverna has grown to include a fast-casual spin-off, LebTav, and the Lebanese Taverna Market. “We have 13 locations, we have one at Reagan National Airport and we’re opening up inside the Pentagon this summer,” she said. “It’s the true American dream.” Shea still attends St. Ann Church with her husband, Kevin, a fellow St. Ann classmate whose mother eventually gave fifth-grade Shea a ride to the family restaurant each day. “It all started in the St. Ann carpool line,” she said.

To get a good taste of Lebanon, Shea recommends ordering a sampling of items such as hummus and pita; tabouleh — a kind of parsley salad; kibbeh — Bulgur wheat, beef and onion fritters; and stuffed grape leaves.

“One of the lovely things about Lebanese food is you eat with people, and so you’re sharing all these dishes. It’s a communal experience, you’re breaking bread,” she said. “It’s one of the basic human needs to eat and to feed others and take care of them. It’s really ingrained in our Lebanese culture.” 

Around the world

Didn’t find what you were looking for? There are more restaurants owned by local Catholics to explore. Sample a taste of Thailand at Thai Winchester. Try Vietnamese fare at Pho 4 Ever in Fairfax. Or if you are looking for scrumptious pasta outside the Beltway, head to Violino Ristorante Italiano in Winchester.

Leave your passport at home. Bring your appetite.  


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021