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La Plaza Owner Henry Mendoza Dies in El Salvador

The community was shocked to learn of the death of Henry Mendoza.

Mendoza was the proprietor of La Plaza, (629 Pennsylvania Ave. SE), for 22-years a Tex-Mex/Salvadoran Pennsylvania Avenue mainstay. He was also as one neighbor wrote in a post on Nextdoor, “a bit of a hero to a lot of us.”

At the risk of repeating a tired cliché, Henry Mendoza epitomized the American dream. Henry, who died March 17 while visiting his native El Salvador, had operated Capitol Hill’s popular Tex-Mex/Salvadorean La Plaza for nearly a quarter century. He died of an apparent heart attack while playing soccer, his favorite sport.  Henry, who was 54, leaves behind his wife Evelyn and three children, ages 16, 13 and 8.

Not just the restaurant world, but the entire Capitol Hill community has lost a beloved soul. Henry was warm and welcoming, gregarious and generous, hard-working and humorous, enterprising and entertaining.

“Henry was the very spirit of hospitality,” former Hill resident Kris Swanson texted from her home in California. “He seemed to truly love feeding people and making them happy.” (Kris and husband Roy Mustelier operated the now defunct Corner Store arts center before returning to their native California several years ago.) Added Hill neighbor Ann Goodwin: “La Plaza was a great place for neighborhood parties.”

We share many fond La Plaza memories. My Red Hat (women’s) club occasionally meets at La Plaza for lunch. Several years ago, my informal Spanish language group practiced our less than fluent Espanol on Henry and his patient staff.  Our “Ninth Street” neighborhood gang used to gather there annually.  Each spring, La Plaza’s festive Cinco de Mayo celebration has featured Mariachi music, margaritas and neighborhood camaraderie.

Arriving in the United States in the 1980s, Henry started out as a dish washer at Las Placitas, on Barracks Row. Eventually, he saved up enough money—and expertise—to launch La Plaza at 629 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. For a few years, he owned a sister restaurant in Virginia. More recently, he operated Mi Vecindad (“My Neighborhood”) in the space now occupied by Hype Cafe near Frager’s Hardware. Both spinoffs closed, and Henry concentrated on the convivial, cozy La Plaza.

Henry Mendoza takes a break at La Plaza, 2020. Photo: Celeste McCall

It wasn’t always easy.  La Plaza weathered many obstacles—including rising prices and competition from other Tex-Mex eateries. But the Covid pandemic shutdown was by far the worst challenge.

“This was not how I envisioned the American dream,” Henry told me in 2020. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to reopen; at least until we get a vaccine. Without a vaccine, we would not be safe.”

How did his restaurant survive the pandemic? Government financial assistance was not enough, he said. Solution? He did not pay himself for six months—while working almost around the clock–and was able to retain and pay all nine employees.

Henry always went the extra mile. For years, he has kept La Plaza open for Thanksgiving,  sometimes deep-frying the holiday turkeys. We’ve occasionally ordered La Plaza’s Thanksgiving dinners, and Henry always served us enough to feed the entire neighborhood. And, unlike most restaurants, La Plaza always serves on Christmas Day.

We will miss Henry, but La Plaza plans to stay open as he would wish.

Mendoza’s great-nephew Andrews has started a fund raiser to help provide for Henry’s young children and wife and to assist with funeral and estate expenses. https://www.gofundme.com/f/henry-mendozas-wife-and-children

This story has been updated.

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