Mexican Food, American Dream
C-store connection draws attention to Maryland taqueria
Rodrigo Albarran (above) is living his own version of the American dream, a feat he can attribute to his passion and hard work, and also to the quirky convenience-store location that has put his restaurant on the map.
He was born in Mexico City and moved to Maryland with his parents when he was 11 years old. At 16, he started working with his father, Duillermo, at a local restaurant, making salads and dressings from scratch.
“They gave me a book about cakes, and I started experimenting with those for our Sunday brunch,” Albarran says. “Now I can’t believe that was my responsibility at that age, but the cakes were pretty good.”
When Duillermo became a kitchen manager at T.G.I. Friday’s, he took his son along. “His English wasn’t great, so he’d bring me to work as a translator and assistant,” Albarran says.
After he graduated from high school, he continued to learn to cook as he put himself through flight school. He graduated from Shenandoah Valley Aviation and became a flight instructor. While he taught, he teamed up with his father to open a restaurant cleaning company. After a few years, Albarran landed his first job as a pilot, flying cargo up and down the East Coast while his father continued the cleaning business. One of Duillermo’s clients, a convenience-store owner, was looking for someone to rent out the restaurant space adjacent to his store. When the struggling economy led to furloughs, Albarran decided to shift gears and take advantage of the opportunity to follow his culinary dreams.
“When this opportunity came,” Albarran says, “we thought, ‘We know we’re in a gas station, but if we make good food, people will come.’ ” And come they did, but not before hard work—and waiting.
He named the restaurant R&R Taqueria after his two sons, Rodrigo and Roque. Albarran and his wife, Hilda, also have two daughters, born since the restaurant opened, whose names also start with “R.”
The 800-square-foot restaurant space they rented in Elkridge, Md., was divided from the adjacent Shell Station by a transparent plastic wall. There are separate entrances and no shared walkway, but people still tend to associate the gas station with the restaurant. The two businesses are located on the corner of a highly trafficked intersection of Route 175. The surrounding neighborhood is rapidly expanding with new houses, apartments and townhomes.
The restaurant space has an open kitchen concept with two narrow bars, eight total stools and just enough hallway space for people to wait in line to place their orders. Because of the tight space, patrons can place their orders online or over the phone for pickup or delivery. Albarran is also in the process of developing an R&R app, through which customers can place orders.
And what are they ordering, you ask? Authentic Mexican food, as authentic as it comes. For inspiration, Albarran drew on the lunch outings his family takes Sundays after church.
“The Albarrans are a family of food critics,” he says. He was also inspired by memories of Mexico. “One of the things we’ve noticed is that there are a lot of food stands in Mexico with all types of people there. Rich, poor, upper class, working class—it doesn’t matter,” Albarran says. “They all stand in line together and eat.”
It was difficult to not second-guess his menu choices in the beginning. He watched neighboring restaurants attract customers with deli sandwiches and fried chicken. His landlord also pressured him to make his menu more mainstream.
“I pray a lot for guidance,” he says “and after praying about it for a while, I felt peace. I stopped looking out my windows and devoted my focus to perfecting what I was doing. Soon enough, the lines of people came.”