It seemed a perfect, full-circle moment for D.C.’s food and beverage industry when, at the beginning of 2023, siblings Carla and Juan Sanchez brought their Bolivian pop-up concept, Casa Kantuta, to Adams Morgan permanently. Eight months in, Casa Kantuta has found success in the same 18th Street basement where the duo first launched their Bolivian bar—the only one of its kind in the U.S.—with Lou Bernard serving as beverage director. With Hispanic Heritage Month beginning Sept. 15, Casa Kantuta is leveraging its success to spotlight the many talented Latine individuals that work in the District’s service industry.
Throughout Hispanic Heritage Month, Casa Kantuta will celebrate with weekly events every Tuesday. Beginning with a Friday, Sept. 15, kickoff, bartenders, chefs, and cooks from D.C. bars and restaurants, as well as freelancers, will be invited to showcase their own culture through cocktails and food. The goal, Bernard tells City Paper, “is to spotlight Latin culture,” and the essential role it plays in D.C.’s service industry.
Bernard is spearheading the events, after hosting a similar series in 2021 while working for Shaw’s now-closed Roy Boys. Carla Sanchez, he explains, has always been connected in the industry, working as a blogger and helping local restaurants with their own media presences. Their combined experience in the industry has helped introduce them to the Latine food and beverage workers in the DMV.
“Last time was a little different because we were coming back from the pandemic, but now we’re doing it bigger,” Bernard says. The original idea came from Baltimore-based, D.C.-born Jessie Marrero, who uses her own Instagram account to showcase Latine bartenders and cooks.
Marrero, who is Puerto Rican, currently freelances as a bartender in Baltimore, but she previously ran the beverage program at Qui Qui, a Puerto Rican restaurant in Shaw. Marrero will be Casa Kantuta’s guest bartender on Sept. 26, and plans to feature her vegan piña colada and a rum twist on a Cherry Coke.
Bernard tells City Paper Hispanic Heritage Month provides an opportunity to showcase D.C.’s culture. “There’s a lot of culture here that nobody looks at in D.C.,” he explains. “You can’t open a restaurant in D.C. if you don’t have half your staff being Latino, starting from the back of house—meaning kitchen staff, dishwashers, food runners—and then moving forward.”
The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests brought an increase in equal opportunity hiring initiatives to the industry, Bernard says, but, while some Latinos are now in guest-facing positions, he says there is still a need to better recognize the talent and creativity they’re bringing to District bars and restaurants.
“There’s still work that needs to be done,” Marrero explains. “From the back of house employees to the front, it’s all essential.”
“Why not put these faces forward?” Bernard asks.
Al Thompson, who will be popping up in the Casa Kantuta space for the closing event on Sunday, Oct. 19, tells City Paper in an email that he has been in D.C.’s service industry since 2008, consulting for popular bars and restaurants such as Bronze, Hiraya, Perry’s, and Bar Pilar while he focuses on opening his own bar concept. Because he works with non-Hispanic concepts, he says, “a lot of people don’t know that I come from a Dominican background and how much it influences my work and the flavors I work with.” Casa Kantuta’s event gives him the space to fully pay tribute to this influence. “No one else is showcasing bartenders of Latin heritage the way [Casa Kantuta] is,” he says.
The celebrations begin on Sept. 15, just ahead of Mexican Independence Day. Margarita Crespo of Rita’s Tacos will bring in Mexican street style foods to pair with drinks from Cruz de Fuego Mezcal, a woman-owned company coming in from Oaxaca, Mexico, for the pop-up.
On Tuesday, Sept. 19, Brazilian churrasqueiro Max’s Meats partners with Robert Cabrales of CabralesKoji. Bernard says they’ll take over the streatery space outside Casa Kantuta for a barbecue and cocktails featuring cachaça, the Brazilian spirit distilled from fermented sugarcane. The menu will largely include grills from Max’s Meats, incorporating Japanese elements and flavors as a nod to the large Japanese population in Brazil. CabralesKoji—koji is a culture essential to Japanese ferments—is featured throughout the menu, including in a bruléed caipirinha marshmallow, Cabrales tells City Paper.
Tuesday, Sept. 26, Cassandra Bates of Guantamalera will be bringing in her tamales. The Panamanian dish was what fueled her initial introduction to Bernard two years ago. Bates says the two clicked as soon as he tried one of her tamales, and she has been partnering with him through various pop-ups ever since.
“Being able to share a little slice of home with the city through my cooking brings me a special kind of joy,” she tells City Paper.
To close out the month, Casa Kantuta hosts a daytime event on Sunday, Oct. 19, with Thompson bartending. He plans to introduce a cocktail inspired by the Dominican drink Morir Soñando, which he likens to Orange Julius. For a second cocktail, he plans to incorporate a Dominican “moonshine” called mamajuana, made from regional herbs and spices, mixed with honey, red wine, and rum.
Dana Laos will accompany Thompson with Puerto Rican picadera—or snacks—she enjoyed during her childhood in South Miami, including empanadillas, papa rellena, and sorullitos de maiz. Laos tells City Paper in an email, “I’ve lived most of my adult life in the American South walking around feeling like the only representative for my culture, and since I’ve moved here, it’s been so refreshing to be around other Hispanic [and] Latin Americans.”
Celebrating the Latine cultures entrenched in D.C.’s food and beverage scene is the main driver for Casa Kantuta’s events, Bernard explains. “We’re here, we’ve been here.”
Casa Kantuta will be posting the most up-to-date details on their Instagram @casakantuta, and on Facebook.