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Syracuse • When Mayra Zelaya cut her finger while chopping cabbage, the wound made it so she couldn’t return to work. But it also gave her a gift:
She and her husband, Melvin, had jobs while rearing five kids. She used to make sandwiches at a fast-food restaurant, so working with one hand wasn’t possible. Every passing day amassed hours that didn’t count toward the family’s next paycheck. A month went by and while she rested her hands, she put her mind to work and took the first steps toward achieving the couple’s dream of opening their own restaurant.
“Everything happens for a reason. In our minds, we always wanted to have this restaurant with our kids,” Mayra said in Spanish. “We just didn’t have the time.”
The Zelayas had been selling Salvadoran pupusas — griddle cornmeal cakes with various fillings, served with a cabbage relish and tomato sauce — from their Layton garage since 2009. They even bought a food truck that sat inactive after the summers. But opening a sit-down eatery meant risking all of their income.
Everything aligned, though, when the commissary kitchen they used to prepare food for events closed and a Waffle Stop restaurant in nearby Syracuse went up for sale. Mayra sold her old car and tapped into the family’s savings for a house down payment to buy it.
Now, they are the proud owners and operators of the Waffle Stop and Authentic Salvadorean Cafe at 1588 S. 2000 West in Syracuse.
The family transformed the menu into a large selection of sweet and savory breakfast options such as tres leches crepes, skillets with eggs and sausage and waffles. The crowning distinction, however, rests in the second part of the restaurant’s name: Salvadoran culture.
“The truth is that Latin American food takes a lot of work,” Mayra said. “And we do everything here.”
The menu includes authentic Salvadoran offerings, along with some Mexican items. There are Salvadoran horchatas; breakfast combinations with eggs, refried beans, plantains and tortillas; or platters with chicken tamales, fried cassava, plantain empanadas and El Salvador’s national dish: pupusas.
Mayra’s pupusas are hard to replicate, the family said. The dough is well seasoned, and the shape is close to a perfect disc, with just the right portions to keep the cheese or meat fillings from spilling.
“I can make pupusas but not as perfect as my mom,” said the couple’s 18-year-old daughter, Fabiola. “I can make them and the food doesn’t come out, but she has them so round and nice and perfect. I’m working on that.”
A different life in the U.S.
The Zelayas have lived in the United States for nearly 16 years. Since their move, they’ve raised their kids as Utahns and learned crafts they didn’t think would interest them.
Melvin has put in extra work and sometimes replaces Mayra in making the pupusas, a practice that back in El Salvador may be frowned upon, she said, because it’s deemed a “woman’s job.”
Some factors that led to the opening of the business came as a result of Melvin’s removal from those societal expectations. He was a mechanic his whole life and loved working at shops in El Salvador and Utah. Changing careers in his 40s wasn’t easy. He grieved quitting his job, but doing so expanded opportunities for his family, including being able to buy the house they initially were saving for.
“This business has given us so much. We’ve learned a lot,” he said in Spanish. “I think we’ve achieved something very big in a [new] country.”
For her part, Mayra discovered her love for cooking later in life. She grew up helping her mom at her pupusa stand in their garage in San Miguel, El Salvador. At first, she blanketed the neighborhood to spread the word about their business. Then, as she grew older, she sat next to the grill and accepted the payments. But making food was never part of her job.
When she moved to the U.S. in 2006, she found herself missing her home country’s flavors and textures. So starting to cook Salvadoran food became a way to satisfy those cravings.
“That’s how I started to make pupusas,” she said. “But they were a joke then.”
A family team
Waffle Stop and Authentic Salvadorean Cafe survived the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the couple’s eldest son, Leonidas, returned to Utah from his Latter-day Saint mission in October 2020, the restaurant’s pace was slow and filled mostly to-go orders.
Now, come April 22, the restaurant will be moving to a bigger space at 2107 W. 1700 South in Syracuse.
Weekends are crowded and patrons from nearby cities commute for the food — and good conversation. The restaurant has some regulars, whom Leonidas has “interviewed.” Phone numbers are exchanged, and there’s even a dish named after a customer.
“We try to keep it very friendly, like family. You can feel like you’re welcome,” he said. “It’s not one of those places where you just come here to eat and then that’s it.”
One of those regulars is Andrea Dotta, a Layton resident who dines in the restaurant with her husband at least once a week. Dotta doesn’t share Mayra’s love for cooking, so the homemade flavors keep her coming back.
“I love the bistec encebollado,” she said in Spanish about the grilled steak with bell peppers and onions. “I call them and tell them I’m on my way, so they know that I’m also about to order some plantains.”
Dotta has been a customer since the beginning. She has witnessed their progression and plans to follow them to their new location.
“You just feel very comfortable there,” she said.
Fabiola Zelaya was also there from the start. At age 14, when her parents opened the restaurant, she was nervous talking with customers, but she overcame that fear. Though working there restricted her time to hang out with friends, she said, it gave her other tools.
“It has taught me how to value my time and how to save money,” she said, “because it’s a lot of hard work.”
Now 18, a high school senior who just finished a dental assisting program at Davis Technical College, Fabiola dreams of becoming an orthodontist, but she still puts time into the restaurant, preparing and decorating waffles and crepes.
“That’s just how I express myself,” she said, “Besides that, I just love that the restaurant is a family thing. And a lot of people ask me, ‘How is your family so close?’ Well, we work with each other every day.”