Come inside the bright and happy new Mexican-style restaurant at the corner of Broad and North Lee and take a brief trip anywhere south, south of here to enjoy warmer climes and sunny skies and escape the cold and blustery winter to enjoy a delicious meal at Cuates Grill.
Streams of colored lights sparkle and dangle from the ceiling amidst yellow, blue, and orange walls, some glass walls to admit the outdoors and brighten the surroundings.
Co-owner Luis Merchan told me he designed the Cuates interior, which he refreshes with finds from trips he makes, like the sombreros hanging on the wall. His menu matches the decor.
The large and varied choices of Mexican-style food range from spinach enchiladas ($11.95) to a seafood broth of shrimp, scallops, salmon, squid and clams (“Cazuela de Mariscos,” $16.95 or $25.95) to tortilla soup ($10.95) with all the staples and more one might expect at a Mexican restaurant, including “street tacos” ($2.95 and up).
The crispy and crackly chips and salsa which come with every meal are hard to resist. Before my entree arrives, I always try to refrain from consuming too many of them which are made onsite, Merchan said, but these, I gobbled up.
When it comes to Mexican food, I am such a bore, always ordering my fav, shredded chicken enchiladas with rice and beans, usually carrying one enchilada home, but not at Cuates. I cleaned my plate ($14.95).
My friend, Jessie, usually orders the same thing, too, chicken fajitas ($18.95), which, at Cuates, she found “delicious.” They were grilled and served atop onions, green peppers, celery and tomatoes, with Mexican rice, refried beans, sour cream and flour tortillas whose supply was gladly replenished when Jessie requested more.
How she found room for the tasty sopaipillas for dessert confounded me who (surprise!) found room to help her out. Sopaipillas are fried puff pastries sloshing in honey and cinnamon ($6.95), the taste as good as the description.
On another visit, I ordered the Fiesta Quinoa salad ($12.95) and, following health experts who rave about the benefits of eating salmon, added a serving (+$4) which was scrumptious with corn and tomato bites, baby spinach leaves, avocado and more. That healthy meal made me feel good enough mentally to eat more sopaipillas, but I held back. Sigh.
Meanwhile, Merchan took time from his busy life at Cuates to chat with me and tell me that the word “cuates’’ means more than “amigos.” Cuates is a closer friendship which he and co-owner Sergio Kehl have shared for decades, strengthened by opening their first restaurant in Georgetown in 2008, and then Alexandria in 2014.
Merchan earned his restaurant stripes working for the food trade in his homeland, Ecuador, before coming to the U.S. and working two years for the Embassy of Ecuador. Along the way at another restaurant, he met Kehl.
Oh, yeah, they had a tough time with Covid: “What was I going to do?” Merchan recalls: “It was our lives! I have one opportunity in this world. Why should I run? I needed to keep open, follow the regulations, the cleaning, the safety. I decided to do my best” which he did. With just one employee to work in the kitchen maybe, Alexandria could stay open for deliveries. Gradually, the business came back and when the owners needed outdoor seating, Alexandria granted the permit in two days.
In Georgetown, without a permit they put tables outside in an alley, and Georgetown gave them a permit immediately.
It took only 40 days to open the Georgetown restaurant; he started on Cuates in Falls Church 11 months ago and still, no liquor permit. “Falls Church needs to be pro-business,” Merchan said, reluctant to speak ill of his new city government. “We can work together, to grow as a community.”
His reasons for coming to the Little City echo those heard ‘round the town: “We’ve always loved Falls Church. We’ve looked at McLean, too, but we got lucky and found this spot [the former location of the Locker Room]. We like the neighborhood, the traffic, its closeness to other businesses.”
Once Cuates secures its liquor permit (waiting more than a month since application was submitted before Christmas) there’s no doubt its intimate bar will become a popular watering hole for local yokels. Then, beer, margarita and other alcoholic beverage sales will boost revenues about 30 percent and put the new Cuates location on track to success, like its older restaurants.
The restaurant has a “loyalty program” for customers to earn points and redeem for later discounts. Park onsite or on the street.
Cuates Grill, 502 West Broad St. #5, Falls Church 20046. (703) 259-4846 Sunday — Thursday 11:30 am — 11pm, Saturday, 11:30 am — 12 am. [email protected] www.cuatesgrillmenu.com Park at the center or on the street.
This article is part of the “Restaurant Spotlight” series, which will feature one local restaurant and its menu each month. To suggest that your restaurant be covered, contact Amanda Snead, News Editor at [email protected]