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  • Writer's pictureLa Voz Latina

For its owner, El Sabor Latino isn’t just a restaurant, it’s a new chance at life

Written by: Zach Wandalowski 🇵🇭

El Sabor Latino by Quick Stop & Deli located in Beltsville, MD on Feb. 15, 2024. (Zach Wandalowski)

Before the sun rises, trucks and trailers pull into a dimly lit parking lot. Clad in work boots, Carhartt jackets and reflective vests, workers hustle into the small storefront of El Sabor Latino by Quick Stop & Deli, sitting alone in an industrial park surrounded by warehouses and body shops. 

“¡El Fernandito! Buenos días, ¿cómo está?”  a lady working there exclaimed to a customer who appeared to be a regular. Another customer walked in and made small talk with the ladies working the front counter and picking up a pastry and a coffee before heading out. A group of three men reclined in the restaurant's corner, perhaps hoping to indulge in a satiating meal after a long night shift. 

This restaurant serves so many loyal customers and fills a niche in the community, yet if not for a seemingly disastrous life event, it might never have been established. 

I heard my name called and grabbed the two dishes I ordered, the Plato Mixto and Yuca con Chicharrón, and headed to one of the small tables. A lady straightened up the pastries on the shelf, leaned her broomstick in the corner, and sat across from me. “You wanted to talk?” she asked. 

Owner Annie Martinez never thought she’d be in this position. Over 10 years ago, her life seemed destined for another path. She had a good job at Bank of America, had just moved into a new house with her boyfriend, and was expecting a child. 

According to Martinez, she had achieved the American dream, moving from her poor upbringing in El Salvador with only a first-grade education yet securing a good job and future for herself and her family. 

But a check-up at the doctor’s office three weeks later changed everything. She was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer that had spread to one of her lungs and her uterus. She had to start chemotherapy immediately. 

“I had so many dreams. I wanted to be a mom. I wanted to start my family,” Martinez told me. 

Seven chemotherapy sessions later, along with radiation therapy, the doctor told her that the cancer was likely coming back. “I remember the doctor telling me, ‘Go live your life.’”

Martinez quit her banking job the next day and decided to chase her passion for food. 

“I love food. It’s always been my thing, my heart,” Martinez said. “I thought if I was going to die, I might as well fulfill a dream.”

In 2014, she opened a food truck in Aspen Hill with money saved between her and her then-boyfriend. Despite the difficulties and lack of initial support, she grew the business, attracted loyal customers and utilized her husband’s connection with an old landlord to take over the lease at the current Beltsville brick-and-mortar store in 2016. 

“I have so many ideas, recipes in my head. I was sure it would work,” Martinez said. 

El Sabor Latino’s unique business model and menu distinguishes itself from the many other Latino restaurants in the area. Its location as the only restaurant in a large industrial park lends itself to serving the nearby factory, construction, waste and body shop workers who stream in before and after their shifts. 

The restaurant opens at 5 a.m. and its fast-paced nature allows it to process takeout requests from workers picking up food for the day. The shop revolves around the local workers' schedules. The store is usually busy from 5:30 to 6 a.m. and 6 to 7 a.m. Its price point is incredibly accessible for people of all income levels, especially given the quality of food served. 

El Sabor Latino doesn’t limit itself to the typical dishes from El Salvador; the menu is full of creations influenced by the various Latino diasporas in the DMV area. The menu incorporates Mexican and Tex-Mex tortas and breakfast burritos, and baleadas, added to the menu after a suggestion by one of her Honduran colleagues. Their breakfast menu includes Central American classics, with combo dishes of fried eggs, refried black beans, crema, plátano, avocado and handmade tortillas, while their lunch menu consists of various grilled meats and seafoods.

Plato Mixto at El Sabor Latino by Quick Stop & Deli located in Beltsville, MD on Dec 4, 2023. (Zach Wandalowski)

Martinez doesn’t do it for the money. If she did, she would still be at the bank or expanding her restaurant to other locations. Her battle with cancer taught her the importance of prioritizing mental and physical health.

Still, Martinez is intensely passionate about El Sabor Latino. The food and recipes from the restaurant are from the heart and a reflection of Martinez, and she is persistent in holding her employees to this high standard. She tells me about how one of her employees was upset after she threw out a tray of rice. It was difficult for her to take a step back from the restaurant's day-to-day, since she always wanted to ensure everything was right. 

But this is more than just a restaurant to her. Through this venture, Martinez was able to get her life back. During her treatment, she had feelings of intense depression to the point that she contemplated ending her life at times. Martinez lacked the motivation or energy to get out of bed and continue with life. She lost the opportunity to have children. She carried trauma from her tough upbringing and difficult first years in the U.S. 

Through this restaurant, Martinez got her life back on track and learned how to value the important things in life. This is why she is so intensely proud and meticulous regarding every detail, flavor, and dish served. 

“I think 2013 was the worst year of my life. I used to be so depressed,” Martinez said, “But after that, I was like no, I’m going to live my life. I’m going to be happy.” 


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