I was in the Spotsylvania/Fredericksburg area with a friend last weekend and I spotted this slightly downtrodden, solitary strip mall on the outskirts of town on my way home. It was a cloudy, drizzly late winter afternoon – the kind of afternoon that doesn’t really lend itself to detours or exploration – so maybe that’s why I found myself drawn to the generically utilitarian blandness and enthusiastic neon signs of the place. There wasn’t much else around except for a few old houses, a mostly empty road and a traffic light, but I couldn’t help it…I was instantly intrigued by this Latino strip mall on the outskirts of a small southern train town with a Latino population under 5%. My friend was in the mood for Latin food and there it was – El Asador – so we pulled into the cracked and faded parking lot and had ourselves a less than memorable Latin lunch. Actually, the food might have been great, but I took a risk and ordered the Marisco Soup, which consisted of seafood that was a little too real looking for my taste sitting in a mysterious orangey-pink milky liquid.
Even though lunch wasn’t exactly spectacular, I was intrigued by the notion that there is a market for this kind of place in small town Virginia. Most of the shops in the strip mall clearly catered to the Latino population: A Salvadoran restaurant, a Latino Supermarket , the Iglesia Fuente de Vida, the laundry facility and a thrift store. The patrons of El Asador seemed to be mostly families and couples of Salvadoran and Mexican descent – in fact, I didn’t see any non-Latino Americans – and it seemed like everybody knew each other. There was a large family, an uncle, grandfather, mom and several children sitting at the table next to us and the mom was telling the mother-son pair sitting at a nearby table that she and her husband got married to get divorced. We were together for 15 years and then we finally decided to get married, but we got married just to get divorced two years later. The lady seemed less than heart-broken about this fact; in fact, she appeared to be beaming, all smiles and perkiness under her artificially blond curled bangs. The mother-son pair looked like they’d just left services at the Iglesia Fuente de Vida; the elderly mom was dressed conservatively in a long black skirt and jacket and mostly stared down at her plate occasionally nodding while her son talked to the pleasantly, cheerfully plump new divorcee. At the far end of the restaurant there was a couple, a woman gloomily eating her meal in a way that let you know she was no piece of cake while her partner, an unusually tall and large man with an impressively full mustache watched a soccer game, providing enthusiastic commentary every few minutes but never once actually interacting with his lunch companion.
Even though I wasn’t blown away by my meal, I was blown away by the fact that these kinds of places actually exist and that they exist outside large urban areas. This little town of 25,000 an hour south of D.C has a relatively small Latino population, but it is robust enough to support a strip mall of almost entirely Latino businesses. But maybe that’s what makes it work…the Latino population in Fredericksburg and the surrounding counties is small enough that close community ties are possible. Unlike northern Virginia which has hundreds of Salvadoran restaurants, a place like Fredericksburg probably only has a few, which makes running into the same people over and over again a little more likely. When you’re looking for the comforts of your native dishes, there are only a few places you can count on, so maybe these places take on a significance and prominence that’s not possible in larger, more diverse urban areas.
Or maybe I’m just romanticizing things. I tend to do that. But there is something nice – and endearingly nostalgic – about walking into a place where everyone knows each other and seems legitimately happy to see each other.