By Nancy C. Baker
When you enter Nery’s Pupuseria in Purcellville, you’re immediately greeted by a diminutive woman with a broad, dimpled smile behind the counter. She’s methodically patting a meat- and cheese-filled corn cake (a pupusa) between her slender hands—and she happily takes your order without missing a beat, as a pot of red beans bubbles on the stove behind her.
Meet Nery Hernandez, who has been serving up authentic Salvadoran street food made from scratch for a year. It is the only western Loudoun pupuseria and a welcome culinary novelty in this part of the county. The warm yellows and spicy reds of the restaurant’s interior complement the rich bite of her homemade pupusas, flautas, and other savories along with her signature tangy curtido (a lightly fermented cabbage slaw with red chiles and vinegar). Together, they are a fiesta for the palate—served in generous portions at an extremely affordable price.
Born in El Salvador, Hernandez moved to Virginia with her family when she was 12, learning to speak English while attending Loudoun County High School. After graduation, she married husband Alexander and found work as a cook and cashier at the SkateQuest café in Reston. Although she could fry up a mean burger and corn dog, her heart was in cooking the foods of her childhood. She fondly remembered the women who lined the streets of her village with their colorful tables of pupusas, pastelitos de carne, tamales and carmelized plantains. The memory of their chatter and loving preparation of sweet and savory treats fed her soul. In fact, when Hernandez wasn’t working at the skating rink, she was recreating the aromas, textures and sounds of her beloved comfort food for her family and friends.
After working at SkateQuest for several years, Hernandez decided to take her Salvadoran fare to the street, delivering lunches to hungry Latino construction workers at job sites around Loudoun County. Her side business became so successful that her husband invested in a food truck for her, which she ran for three years while juggling the needs of their growing family.
As a young mother with three children each a year apart, Hernandez admits she found entrepreneurship and parenting to be overwhelming. “I had no idea what I was doing on either account,” she laughs. Her sister-in-law suggested that she take some classes offered by INMED Partnerships for Children, a nonprofit organization based in Sterling that helps low-income and immigrant families build marketable skills and a support structure to raise healthy children.
Hernandez attended INMED’s parenting classes regularly and took many of the group’s skills development classes, such as budget management. Over the years, she developed lifelong friendships with fellow parents and INMED staff, particularly Coralis Fernandez, INMED’s Educational Groups Facilitator. “I used to call her all the time when I was faced with difficult decisions,” Hernandez said. “She not only gave me great advice but taught me how to be patient in all things.”
“I remember how shy Nery was when she first started attending our classes,” Fernandez said. “She used to blush bright red when I would call on her.” When Hernandez mentioned that she was interested in going into business for herself, Fernandez gave her resources to help her get started. “Nery is a shining example of what we strive to accomplish with our programs,” she said.
Hernandez said she’s grateful for the support. “INMED taught me so much about growing my business and raising healthy children at the same time,” she said. “My parents lived far away from me and couldn’t help. The staff at INMED taught me how to play and have fun with my children, how to feed them nutritious food and how to discipline without losing my temper.”
Her children still ask to go to INMED’s Opportunity Center for “fun time,” although Hernandez has less opportunity for that now that she’s a full-fledged restaurateur. Running a restaurant is significantly more demanding than her food truck, Hernandez says, but she is taking it all in stride. “I remember all the lessons I learned from Coralis and INMED, which have helped me as a parent—and when I must deal with a difficult customer,” she said. “I just take a deep breath and keep smiling.”
For more information about INMED’s Opportunity Center, go to oppportunitycenter.us.
[Nancy C. Baker is the communications director for INMED Partnerships for Children. Working for You is a rotating column providing space for Loudoun’s nonprofit leaders to let readers know what they do and how they can help the cause. To participate in the program, email email@example.com.]