Anyone who has lived in a foreign country understands the immense comfort and nostalgia evoked by delicious homecooked food from one’s native country. Walking off the DC streets and through the door of Los Hermanos Dominican food restaurant, you could imagine yourself in a neighborhood comedor in Santo Domingo. The smell of Dominican sazón lingers in the air, bachata plays in the background and if you’re lucky, an intense game of dominoes will be in progress. Be prepared for the periodic slamming of the fichas and some heated, but friendly, debate. In front of you will be the steam table filled with an array of meats, stews and varieties of rice. You are likely to be greeted by one of the two hermanos, Aris or Raymond, after whom the restaurant is named. The (nearly) identical twins are now entirely running the business started by their parents more than 20 years ago.
Ramon and Mercedes Compres grew up in neighboring towns in the fertile Cibao region of the Dominican Republic. Ramon’s brother and Mercedes’ sister began dating first but when the siblings Ramon and Mercedes met, there was also a spark. Both couples would eventually marry and have three children who were cousins two times over. Shortly after they married, Ramon and Mercedes moved from their small town to the capital of Santo Domingo in search of work. After a few years, Ramon’s sister, who had moved to Washington DC as a babysitter for an American expat family, petitioned to bring her siblings to the US as well. Though New York and Miami are the most popular destinations for newly arrived Dominicans, Mercedes didn’t like New York and wanted to be together with family, so they moved to Washington DC in 1980 and settled into Columbia Heights in NW DC which, at the time, was a predominantly Spanish speaking neighborhood.
According to Aris and Raymond, Ramon’s plan was to stay in the US for just a few years to raise enough money to send back to Santo Domingo to open a “pica pollo” or a type of casual fried chicken stand very popular throughout the island. He figured the pica pollo would produce a stable income for his family and he could then return to the life he knew in the DR. But things didn’t go quite as planned. Ramon had been trained as an electrician in the DR. He helped to build many of the exclusive resorts around the tourist area of Punta Cana. He got a job doing electrical work here in the States, but not knowing English was a challenge. Aris recounts one job where his father installed a new electrical panel. The job cost the customer $500, but Ramon was only paid $50 by the contractor he worked for even though he did all the work. Ramon decided then that he would one day work for himself. Mercedes worked hard cleaning houses and they were eventually able to save enough money to buy a modest house in the neighborhood.
Once Ramon and Mercedes had saved up some extra money again, Ramon went down to the DC Office of Planning and noticed that there were plans for a metro to be built underneath 14th Street in Columbia Heights. So in 1995, he bought two abandoned and rundown rowhouses along what was then a drug and gang-filled street called Park Road. He combined the two homes and opened up the space to create a “colmado” or a small neighborhood grocery store ubiquitous in the DR and many Central and South American countries. The store was patronized by the large Latino population in the area, particularly fellow Dominicans and their Caribbean cousins, Puerto Ricans and Cubans.
The twins were 10 years old when their family opened the store. It was open from 8am until 10pm at night, so the family spent most of their day there. On weekends and after school, the boys would help out stocking shelves and learning to use the cash register. Because the hours were so long, Mercedes set up a makeshift cooktop in the back corner of the store so she could feed her family homemade meals while they worked. But once customers smelled the familiar scents of homemade Dominican food, they started asking to try some. In the DR, food is meant to be shared and somehow there always seems to be enough for one more person, so Mercedes was happy to share her food with customers. It wasn’t long before they came back for more and the family realized that this was a business opportunity. They set up a steam table in the back of the grocery store where they offered a few different takeout dishes cooked by Mercedes every morning and soon they had a colmado with a carry out.
Since the business was stable and even growing, Ramon decided it was time to go back to Santo Domingo. He left his sister to run the business in his absence, and he brought his children back to his native country. Since they had been born in the US and primarily spoke English, he especially wanted them to learn Spanish. Life was easier in the DR. They didn’t have to work the long hours. The family earned enough money from both the pica pollo business and the colmado in the US that Mercedes didn’t have to work outside of the home. Their money stretched further.
But after a few years, Ramon realized that his colmado in the US wouldn’t continue to be successful unless he was present to run it. So, with some reluctance they returned to Washington. Ramon knew that there was opportunity in the colmado and he sacrificed his plan to help it grow. During this same time, Columbia Heights was dramatically changing around them. In 1999, those plans for a metro stop were realized. Many of the surrounding business were actually forced to close because of the metro construction. The arrival of public transportation kicked off the gentrification of the neighborhood, but the biggest changes would come with the arrival of superstore Target in 2008 just adjacent to the road where Los Hermanos was located. There were pros and cons to all the development for Los Hermanos. The DC government had negotiated with the developer that the businesses along Park Road must remain in place and receive grant funding to renovate their facades. In Raymond’s own words, up until that point Los Hermanos was a bit of a dingy hole-in-the-wall. The newly improved exterior attracted more foot traffic.
On the down side, the family noticed that the big box retailers like nearby Giant and Target, which included a full-scale grocery store, were impacting the sales in their colmado. They were losing business and trying to figure out what to do to keep afloat. The brothers also noticed that the demographics of the area were changing as more young, white American customers starting coming in. Some of whom came in off the street and stopped short before the long steam table, not sure of how to order or what to do, and sometimes even turned around and left. Ramon and Mercedes relied on Aris and Raymond to greet these new customers and connect with them, instructing them how the restaurant worked and explaining each of the dishes. Finally, the brothers convinced their parents to ditch the grocery store altogether and set up some tables and chairs to create a true Dominican comedor.
They spruced the place up a bit to make it more inviting, but they never strayed from the true spirit of the restaurant, a casual neighborhood spot with delicious home cooked Dominican food, steeped in their native culture. They succeeded in catering to both the new customers and the tried and true regulars. In fact, they remain intent on not alienating their regular customers as they grow and change. One way they do that is to keep prices affordable, particularly considering the amount of food piled on the plate! They want this to be the kind of place where everyone can afford to eat on a regular basis. As the neighborhood continued to gentrify, the majority of Latinos who once lived in the area left. But by then, Los Hermanos was one of only a handful of Dominican food restaurants in the DC area and unanimously recognized as the best. Dominicans will drive from far and wide to go back to Los Hermanos (as much as for the food as for the sense of community). Aris and Raymond are not only kind, but genuine and humble. They still do it all; take orders, work the cash register, wipe down tables and greet and interact with customers, which they clearly enjoy. They also don’t forget a face. Once you have visited Los Hermanos a few times, they will remember you and greet you like an old friend.
That feeling of belonging has a lot to do with the success of Los Hermanos, but of course, at the end of the day, folks are coming for the amazing Dominican food. In the beginning, Mercedes did all the cooking but as they grew they had to bring on more kitchen staff. Mercedes trained the new cooks in order to maintain the quality and consistency of the food. Most Dominican dishes are stew-like, and so they lend themselves very well to sitting and simmering all day long, hence the steam table. The sauces only become richer and the meat more tender as the day goes on.
Dominicans eat rice every day. Aris and Raymond say that for them not having rice is like a caffeine addict not having coffee. They just don’t feel right. So, rice is a huge part of the Dominican culinary tradition. There are three basic ways that Dominicans eat rice. Most common is plain white rice with pinto beans served on the side. This is the famous “arroz con habichuelas”. Then there is also a “moro” which is when the rice, beans and seasoning are mixed up and cooked together. The most popular version is moro de “guandules” or green pigeon peas, usually with some coconut milk added for richness. Then there is also “locrio” which is when seasoned meat, usually chicken, is cooked with the rice but there are no beans.
There are a variety of meats and sides at Los Hermanos to accompany the rice. Braised chicken, oxtail, beef with peppers and onions, seared pork chops, goat, tripe, fried whole snapper with coconut milk and more. Though each dish has its own distinct seasoning, the one common ingredient is oregano. Surprisingly, Dominican oregano is one of the most difficult ingredients for the family to find. The type of oregano used in the DR is different from the Italian variety mostly used in the US. But they finally did find a distributor of Dominican oregano in New York. Another hard to find ingredient is bitter orange. Bitter oranges are one of the fruits we just don’t have here in the US, probably because as their name suggests, they are not for juicing or eating, but used to marinade and tenderize tougher, gamier meats like goat or even pork.
Most of the Dominican food offerings remain on a daily rotation but they do offer special dishes on the weekends. On most weekends (or the coldest of winter days), they feature a special dish called sancocho which is a hearty stew filled with different kinds of meats and root vegetables. Sancocho is a special occasion meal in the DR. It’s also known as the stew of the seven meats. The number of different meats in the stew is a bragging right (makes sense when in many poor Dominican communities, meat can be scarce) and generally coincides with the importance of the occasion. It can also include green plantains, green bananas, yuca and other types of root vegetables of which there is a surprisingly large variety in the DR. Every Dominican doña has a slightly different version of sancocho and every family claims that their recipe is the best. Sancocho is the ultimate form of comfort food and the Compres family knows that during the tough winter months here in the States, their compatriots need as much comfort as possible.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Los Hermanos only serves what is on the steam table – not all Dominican foods lend themselves to long and slow cooking. One of the most popular Dominican side dishes is tostones or twice fried, smashed green plantains. They are best served hot, straight out of the fry pan and they can be made to order at Los Hermanos anytime as long as you know to ask. Another Dominican food staple is the highly caloric and gut bursting breakfast of the “tres golpes”. The base of the dish is mangu or green plantain that is boiled and mashed with butter, and then a mountain of mangu is accompanied by the three hits of fried egg, fried salami and fried cheese. This is a dish that most certainly evolved from a time when most people performed hard physical labor and needed such a dense and filling meal to get them through the day. If you’re not headed to work in the fields though, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to crawl back into bed for a nap.
If you’re looking for something lighter, there are empanadas or coconetes which are a cross between a coconut and a gingerbread cookie. Every Caribbean country has a version of a coconete. Los Hermanos also prides itself on its fresh juices and smoothies. Like any tropical country, there’s a huge variety of delicious fresh fruit in the DR that is juiced or served as a smoothie blended with sweetened condensed milk and ice. Many of the fruits popular in the DR are difficult to find in the US and Aris and Raymond recognize that canned or jarred versions just won’t cut it so they go to great lengths to find the freshest fruit possible. One of these fruits is the guanabana or soursop which is large with a spiky green skin and meaty white pulp often compared in texture to lobster. Guanabana is slightly musky and related in flavor (but not texture) to a pineapple. It makes delicious juice but it has to be fresh. After looking far and wide, they found a distributor in Colombia where they get freshly jarred guanabana meat for juice and smoothies. Similarly, their chinola or passionfruit juice contains flecks of the little black seeds which, along with the fantastic flavor, is a sure sign that the pulp is fresh.
As if all of this weren’t enough, Los Hermanos also offers homemade sweet treats and catering services as well. Mercedes may no longer be cooking all the savory food, but she is still the head baker. She makes the popular Dominican sponge cake with fruit filling and a stiff egg white icing. She also makes Latin American classics like rice pudding and dulce de leche. Desserts can be ordered for special occasions or enjoyed individually at the restaurant. The brothers also cater events like weddings or parties. Aris and Raymond singlehandedly handle the pricing and ordering of the food for events, as well as the delivering and serving. A few years back, they were approached by the Nationals baseball team to provide food for visiting teams playing away games here in DC. Initially just a few times a season, they now cater every away game because the many Caribbean players on the teams can’t get enough of the familiar comfort food. When Nationals baseball players come into the restaurant, the dish they most often request is the simple daily staple called the Dominican Bandera – braised chicken, white rice and red pinto beans; the food from their childhood. The dish that exemplifies Dominican cuisine in its rustic simplicity.
Considering the longevity and success of Los Hermanos, I asked Aris and Raymond what makes them the most proud about what their family has built. Raymond mentions the fact that when he told people about wanting to create a Dominican comedor, many told him that there was no way that a restaurant of only Dominican food would be successful. He’s proud to have proven the naysayers wrong. Aris is proud of the reputation they have built as the best Dominican food restaurant in the entire Washington DC region. So good, in fact, that many famous DC residents have become customers including a few DC mayors and politicians and recently, Puerto Rican Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
So what is next for the brothers Compres? They have plans to open a second location on the edge of the city with easy access to neighboring Maryland towns and even Baltimore, where many of the Dominicans who once lived in Columbia Heights have gone. The family’s success began with irresistible Dominican food, but they have grown and prospered because they have skillfully adapted to changes and challenges. And in typical Dominican fashion, they have welcomed everyone into their restaurant and made us all feel part of something very special.
1428 Park Rd NW, Washington, DC 20010
About the author: Laura Pimentel is a Washington, DC based foodie who likes to explore her world one bite at a time. Visit The Author’s Website
All Photos By Nicole Harkin