La Unión Restaurant offers a blend of both Salvadoran and Mexican dishes for a diverse Arlington community.
To some folks, La Unión is a municipality in the La Unión Department of El Salvador, but for the people here in Arlington, it’s a local restaurant where you can order some top notch inspired Salvadoran and Mexican food.
The story of La Unión Restaurant starts in El Salvador where married couple Jose and Zoila Zelaya, both only 16 and 18 years old, came to the United States to escape tension caused by war in their hometown. They never looked back.
I caught up with the current owner and son of Jose and Zoila, Jose (Joey) Zelaya. Jose was born in providence Rhode Island and was one of four siblings and is the third oldest. He moved with his family to Arlington in 1981, “We lived in north Arlington, south Arlington, we have a lot of family here so growing up was fun.” Jose said.
A real stand up individual, he is filled with laughs and enthusiasm for his customers, and devoted to the community and the food he serves.
La Unión Restaurant opened in 1998 but Jose says that story starts in 1993 with the La Unión Grocery store, located on what is now Cherry Hill Road. The family owned this spot up until 2019, when they sold it.
“The restaurant came about because we wanted to build a kitchen inside the grocery store but at the time the county wouldn’t let us,” said Jose. “That’s when we looked for a restaurant and that’s how La Unión Restaurant came to be.”
But where did the Mexican inspiration come from? After all, La Unión Restaurant recognizes itself as both a Mexican and Salvadoran restaurant.
“Pops started working for a Mexican restaurant, El Ranchero, as a dishwasher, but had such an interest in learning how to cook that the late owner, Felipe and his wife taught my dad how to cook,” said Jose.
El Ranchero closed in 2003.
When the Zelaya family bought the retail space at 5517 Wilson Blvd in Bluemont, it was a Greek restaurant.
“Jimmy and George, a father and son, were running it and today, George is currently running a business down the street in that’s a dry cleaning alteration business,” Jose said.
Each of the family’s children have played a role in helping out their business, though it was Jose who fully embraced the business and fell in love with running the restaurant, leading to him acquiring full control of the business in 2008.
It is easy to see and hear how much Jose appreciates the hard work of his parents and how he expresses extreme gratitude towards them in almost every aspect.
“They loved cooking… my mom’s history in cooking goes back to when she was growing in El Salvador in the 50s and learning how to cook through her mom and a lot of the recipes have actually came from my grandma,” he said.
When starting out, they were serving out food they themselves would eat as a family, including French, Italian, American, Mexican and Salvadoran cuisine.
“When first opened we used to have spaghetti,” Jose noted.
They quickly noticed that the Salvadoran and Mexican food was selling the best and, in 2000, they stuck with it.
“That really was the standout in terms of what we were selling, and in 2000 that’s when it started taking off,” Jose said.
Taking a look inside, there are colorful lights that surround the interior, plus pinatas hanging from the ceiling to paintings on the wall that showcase the inspirations of both cultures.
Asked about the most popular dish, there was no hesitation when Jose answered with, “El Plato Tipico.”
A personal favorite of mine, this dish consists of marinated ribeye steak, Mexican yellow rice, fried plantains, avocats, queso fresco, beans, pico de gallo, and tortillas.
Also on the menu are a wide range of favorites, from pupusas, enchiladas, salads, nachos, quesadillas, tacos, burritos, platanos, flan and drinks such as horchata and maranon (cashew flavored juice).
The chips and salsa are no after-thought, either.
“Come on in, we make some really good freaking house salsa,” said Jose.
Many things about the restaurant have remained a constant over the years, but La Unión also aspires to evolve and add to its offerings.
“We will continue with the dishes that everyone absolutely loves but also try to venture out,” Jose said, hinting towards a possible craft beer venture.
One thing that’s not changing: a commitment to service. Jose strives to find ways to make customers happy, whether it’s adjustments to menu items or cooking up something different entirely.
“If the customer wants something different and we have it in the back, we’ll make it,” he said.
Jose was eager to thank Arlington for helping his family-owned restaurant reach 25 years in business.
“We feel apart of its history” he says of the county. “Thank you, you have been tremendous. Being able to survive the pandemic and receive so much support from Arlingtonians, the folks in Bluemont, government, police/sheriff departments, EMS, they all come in here to eat, so thank you.”
Nicholas Barahona is a freelance food writer who often posts his food reviews on Instagram.
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