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The building in Mount Pleasant now occupied by Haydee’s Restaurant has definitely seen worse days. The space was officially vacant for about six months and under renovation for six more, an unsightly reminder of both failed jazz venue Cafe Bloom and the hopes for upscale night life that came and went as quickly as the club. While even Bloom’s detractors admit that the club was handsomely designed, it was poorly run and almost absurdly out of sync with the surrounding neighborhood. During the time the place was closed, vagrants could occasionally be spotted sleeping in the old club’s plush booths.
Bloom’s “was trying to go for a high-style kind of appeal in a neighborhood where people just don’t naturally come at night,” says ANC Commissioner Bonnie Cain, who also recounts how Bloom’s owners would do all sorts of “strange things”closing unexpectedly and then reopening days later, or hosting private parties no one in the neighborhood was invited to attend. Bloom’s opening in Mount Pleasant seemed to make about as much economic sense as setting up a pupuseria next to the Four Seasons.
There’s little evidence of the Bloom days in Haydee’s. One time I spot a slickster on a cell phone sitting in one of the power booths that curl out from the front corners of the dining room, but Haydee’s otherwise looks every bit the clean and simple family restaurant the neighborhood has lacked for so long. Except for the jukebox, which looks like a shrine in its glass enclosure, the restaurant is not dressed for glitzy nightlife. Light fixtures with stained-glass shades hang halfway between the floor and the ceiling, illuminating an orderly collection of tables and two bars, one for drinks, the other for salads. The outside has been redone with a fresh coat of beige paint. A bright red and green stripe rims the area beneath the rain gutters, and just below that hangs a thin banner touting the kitchen’s wares: pupusas, margaritas, quesadillas, fajitas, enchiladas, pasta.
Yes, pasta. While friendly sit-down restaurants are rare along Mount Pleasant Street, Salvadoran and Mexican food is not. But Haydee’s proprietor, Haydee Vanegas, who along with her husband Mario also runs Trolley’s down the street, is hoping to attract a larger and more diverse clientele by offering the sort of variety that could inspire nightly visits. Haydee’s salmon and red snapper (also served fried as pescado a la espartana) aren’t necessarily worth a cross-town trip, but they’re fine fillets, broiled and seasoned with nothing more that a little lemon and oil. The sirloin steak we try is tough, but the babyback ribs are fall-from-the-bone tender, even if the sauce seems a little tame, especially coming from a kitchen that makes its own salsa. The biggest surprise is the spaghetti; order it with sausage (as opposed to meatballs) to taste a curiously delicious Mexican/Italian fusion.
Since Haydee’s is a neighborhood restaurant, it’s no surprise that the main fare on its menu is Mexican and Salvadoran. Two Salvadoran sautees, one with shrimp and garlic butter, the other with shrimp, tomato sauce, and vegetables, are light, mellow cousins of the “Haydee’s Special”a rich shrimp-rice-and-cheese concoction colored with pimentos, zucchini, and spiced tomatoes. The rest of the menu is comprised mostly of tortilla-wrapped mainstays: soft-shell steak or chicken tacos, enchiladas submerged in fragrant red gravy, feisty chiles rellenos, quesadillas made with pretty much whatever you want. Our favorites are the deeply flavorful fajitas (chicken, steak, shrimp, or combo), which arrive sizzling so loudly on the skillet that you practically have to yell to be heard above the din.
Cain, who also chairs Mount Pleasant’s Committee for Economic Growth, thinks mastery of such dishes is necessary for a restaurant to survive in the neighborhood. Citing a study done by 7-Eleven that suggests a lot of untapped income in the area, she predicts that Haydee’s will be around for a while: “I think Haydee’s is one of the first restaurants that we’ve ever had that is really going to attract that dollar.”
On the way out one night, a fellow diner tells me she and her neighbors have long been frustrated by the scarcity of suitable options for a night out with the family. “We’re sick of damn cooking,” she laughs, pounding her fist on an imaginary surface. “I’m just thankful that someone, in this case Miss Vanegas, took it upon themselves to do something about it.” She rips a branch from an overhanging tree, dips it into a puddle, and slaps her own and her daughters’ faces with the wet leaves. “It’s a relief,” she says.
Haydee’s Restaurant, 3102 Mount Pleasant St. NW. (202) 483-9199.
The music on the jukebox gets only as modern as grunge, and the decor is rumpled even for a dive, but people still insist that the Post Pub is on the cutting edge. “You should do a story on it,” says one reader. “It’s where the Post writers get their scoops.” I suppose it’s possible that Deep Throat is among those bellied up to the bar, but the waitress who takes my order doubts it. “People don’t come here to scheme,” she says. “We’re pretty much just cocktails and burgers.” She recommends the Diplomat, a juicy burger topped with lettuce, tomato, bacon, and cheese. Appropriately enough, she says most people refer to the sandwich merely as “the dip.”
Post Pub, 1422 L St. NW. (202) 628-2111.
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