Six months after Jose and Ana Reyes opened their first Salvadoran restaurant in 1982, the chef quit because they couldn’t pay him a decent wage. So Jose assigned Ana to the kitchen. “I never had made pupusas [a traditional fried bread] before,” she recalls. “But we had pupusas on the menu.”

The Reyes’ cantina, El Tamarindo, has since become an Adams Morgan landmark. The business has expanded to two additional venues—one on Georgia Avenue near Silver Spring, and another, Casa Fiesta (now owned by Jose’s brother), on Wisconsin Avenue near Tenleytown. Having fled the poverty of his father’s farm in El Salvador at 21, Reyes says, “You have to make a strong decision—to make it, or not make it.” Reyes, now 45, looks as if he has pretty much made it.

With the classic American dream in the bag, the restaurateur is pursuing another fantasy of his youth: to become a professional singer. Reyes and a friend produced one record back in the ’80s, and now he’s got a new CD called El Mundo en Tus Manos, or The World in Your Hands. Reyes wrote, arranged, and performed all 10 songs on the disc, most of which, frankly, are as starchy as a pupusa. “I have written many more,” reveals Reyes, who has recently returned from a trip to El Salvador spent promoting the new release among music execs and disc jockeys.

His performance is memorable for its sheer ballsiness if not for its melodies. The title track earnestly recounts the sad tale of a man who fails to realize, until it is too late, that he has “the world in his hands.” From his deathbed, he implores the listener to “take hold of the world right now.” And so on. In another ballad, San Salvador’s airport, Comalapa, becomes a metaphor for loss, a place where lovers pronounce their final farewells. “No puede contener las ganas de llorar,” he laments: “I can’t contain the triumph of tears.”

It’s a flawless production, but more an act of will than of musical promise. Reyes has let little stand in his way since 1974, when, with $1,500 he’d scraped together, he first slipped illegally into the U.S. from Mexico. He came to D.C. from L.A., and within a year, the Immigration and Naturalization Service captured him and shipped him back to El Salvador. He managed to return here a month later. He worked as a busboy and dishwasher to save enough money to open his restaurant. Twenty years later, Reyes can feed INS agents, or sing to them, if they like.—Paula Park