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This week on Let’s Go, South Florida host Arlene Borenstein visits El Guanaco.
Watch Let’s Go, South Florida: Our Hispanic Heritage Month coverage continues with a visit to El Guanaco, an El Salvadorian/Mexican restaurant in Oakland Park. Host Arlene Borenstein goes inside the kitchen with El Salvadorian chef and co-owner Cristina Ardon. She and co-owner Rudi Lopez, a Mexican-born chef, have been making pupusas and tortillas from scratch at their restaurant for more than a decade.
This is the tale of two countries and two foreign-born chefs who refused to give up.
Chef Cristina Ardon was born in El Salvador and came to the United States in the late ‘80s at age 10. She opened El Guanaco Taqueria y Antojitos in Oakland Park 11 years ago with co-owner Rudi Lopez, who grew up in Acapulco, Mexico. She came to the United States after graduating high school.
Ardon, a single mother, says that when the restaurant opened it wasn’t profitable enough for both owners to get by. The women worked at other restaurants by day and shared one car to get to El Guanaco by night.
“Cristina would pick me up around 5 or 5:30 p.m. every day,” said Lopez, who would leave her job as a sous chef at Sea Watch in Fort Lauderdale to continue working at El Guanaco until after the doors closed.
“We would start at 6 a.m. and end at 2 a.m. to do all the prep and get ready to open the next day. It gets to the point where the body couldn’t handle anymore,” Ardon said.
Their food, however, was growing in popularity. The women created a menu highlighting their homeland favorites: made-to-order El Salvadorian pupusas (the national dish of round corn cakes filled with pork, chicken, cheese or beans), tacos with scratch-made tortillas and other dishes people from all backgrounds and countries kept coming back for. You can watch Ardon and Lopez make these dishes on this week’s episode of Let’s Go, South Florida.
“We don’t have pupusas pre-made. You’re never going to get that in our restaurant. We don’t do that,” Ardon said.
Six months after opening, she was finally able to leave her waitress/bartending job to run El Guanaco full time. Lopez joined her about two years later.
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Over the years, El Guanaco (a nickname or term for someone from El Salvador), has received local accolades, including a spot on PBS’ “Check, Please!” Their decades of work in the restaurant industry gleams among their friendly staff, spotless, well-run kitchen and unfailing fresh ingredients. The quaint eatery looks like a small house from the outside. Inside, there are just six tables. An outside patio also has six tables and two high tops.
In 2016, the duo opened a second restaurant called Viva Tokyo, serving Japanese-Latin fusion, on Commercial Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.
“It was honestly a dream I had for myself,” said Ardon, who has a passion for Japanese cuisine. “We incorporated all of our Mexican dishes and we started cooking Mexican and Japanese food like a spicy tuna burrito, a tuna roll with shrimp tempura, and we used to put wasabi guacamole on top.”
But they converted Viva Tokyo to another El Guanaco in 2019 because of the first location’s popularity. The pandemic, however, made it too difficult to keep the second location open and the doors closed in May 2020. The women, though, continue to maintain El Guanaco’s success in Oakland Park, putting in the hours and growing their word-of-mouth following.
“I think it was the combination of desire and doing our best. This country opens the door to opportunities, and opens the door to creativity to make our dreams come true,” Lopez said.
El Guanaco is at 331 NE 44th St., Oakland Park. Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.