Lillian Anaya Quintanilla has been selling her golden-brown, crispy pupusas and banana-leaf-wrapped tamales at farmers markets around the Seattle area for more than 10 years, drawing customers willing to wait up to an hour for her food and Salvadoran-style horchata. On March 9, she finally opened her first restaurant, Lily’s Salvadorean Restaurant, in a spacious space at 2940 Southwest Avalon Way in West Seattle, which will have a full bar serving beer, wine, micheladas, palomas, and margaritas when the liquor license gets approved in a couple of weeks.
But before Quintanilla started her food truck at the University District Farmers’ Market in 2011, before she arrived in Seattle in 2007 with no job, no money, and two baby girls to take care of, and before she immigrated to the United States two and a half years earlier, she was a dentistry student in El Salvador who couldn't make a pupusa to save her life. When Quintanilla got pregnant with her first daughter, who was born with special needs, she left school to care for her as a single mother. “It was hard working and taking care of my daughter, which is the reason I came to the U.S.,” Quintanilla says.
After a few years working odd jobs in Maryland and welcoming her second daughter, she decided to try her luck elsewhere: she got on a bus and found herself sitting with her two daughters in Seattle’s bus terminal with no certain plan for her next move.
A man approached her and brought her to Casa Latina’s Day Worker Center, where Quintanilla met Cameron Herrington, a volunteer, who found her places to stay with some of his friends; later, she got more permanent housing through Seattle’s St. Mary’s Church. Quintanilla got a job eventually, but struggled to make ends meet while taking care of her daughters. She wanted the financial freedom of running her own business.
Herrington had an idea: “You should sell pupusas,” he told her. The only problem was that she’d never made one in her life.
One day, she called her mother, who still lives in El Salvador, and asked how. Her mother guided her on how to prepare the masa, how to season the pork for the chicharrón, how to flatten the masa with a rhythmic slapping of palm on dough into a round, consistent shape, and how to flip them on the griddle to get a golden-brown, crispy crust. When Quintanilla was ready, and with the help of Herrington and one of his friends, Milton Axel Cornejo, she got a large cast-iron griddle, gas range, and tent, and started selling her pupusas, tamales, and breakfast plates with rice, beans, eggs, and fried plantains at the University District Farmers Market.
Quintanilla’s husband, Pedro Trujillo, who she met in Seattle in 2008, helped her fry eggs and add curtido, a tangy cabbage slaw, to the pupusas she made. Her second daughter, Samantha Victoria Trujillo, started taking orders at the booth when she was 10. Soon, Quintanilla had employees and was selling pupusas at markets all over the Seattle area: in West Seattle, Bellevue’s Crossroads neighborhood, Columbia City, Queen Anne, Mercer Island, Fremont, and more.
Quintanilla was finally able to open a restaurant this year with a loan from the Ventures Nonprofit, an organization that helps small businesses in the Seattle area. The restaurant is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, and her daughter and husband still work at the restaurant. Though the hours are long, she says she wanted to provide Seattleites a Latino breakfast option, something that she says has long been missing in the area. “In my country, there are restaurants open from five in the morning,” she says.
Like the food cart, the restaurant will serve various types of pupusas (jalapeño and cheese and pork, to name a couple) and pork, chicken, and corn tamales, but there are some new dishes as well. The chiles rellenos on the menu, unlike the Mexican version, which is filled with just cheese, are stuffed with pork or chicken with green beans, carrots, potatoes, and mushrooms. The Salvadoran carne asada plate has thicker cuts than those at most Mexican restaurants and is served with chorizo sausage, fresh cheese, rice, beans, and avocado. And she’s still serving the Salvadoran-style horchata, called horchata de Morro, which is made with ground peanuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, cinnamon, and rice, among other ingredients and has a rich toasty, nutty flavor.
On weekends, the staff of the restaurant will wear traditional Salvadoran clothes, the women in colorful billowing dresses and the men with cream-white shirts decorated with colorful threads and patches.
In the future, Quintanilla plans to add more dishes to the menu as well as Washington wine and Salvadoran Pilsener beer. The family is taking a one-month break from the farmers market booth right now to get the restaurant started, but she plans to be back soon.
“I don’t know why, but I love the market,” she says. “And I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who believed in me.”