Story and Photos by Jillian Diamond
Tucked away in a Gaithersburg shopping center on Shady Grove Road is an unassuming-looking Mexican restaurant. But inside La Mexicana Bar & Grill, guests are offered healthy, affordable Mexican food in a festive atmosphere.
La Mexicana’s president and founder, Roy Sawhney, is originally from India. He had once worked in a Mexican restaurant in Rockville and decided to open his own.
He called it El Mexicano, and focused on healthy fast food-inspired Mexican dishes. El Mexicano opened in 1987 and developed into a small chain with locations in Beltsville and Germantown.
In recent years, though, Roy has focused on making it more of a sit-down restaurant. He added a bar and live entertainment at locations in Gaithersburg and Germantown. The Beltsville location has since closed.
With the new focus came a new name — La Mexicana.
“With a lot of competition like Chipotle coming in, we decided to get into the bar concept,” said Roy. “That’s worked out pretty well for us.”
La Mexicana is a family affair. Roy’s wife, Asha, is La Mexicana’s chef. Their son, Ashish — “Ash” for short — handles the business side of things. Ash got involved after graduating from the University of Maryland at College Park as a business management major.
Roy and Asha pick the menu. They do not use lard or any kind of animal fat in their dishes, so any item can be adjusted to fit a vegetarian diet. La Mexicana’s ingredients come from local sources.
“We focus on customer trends, what customers want,” explains Ash, “And we try to focus on quality foods, which is the most important thing.”
Also notable are La Mexicana’s char-grilled specials, which are grilled over lava rocks to seal in their flavors. Lava rocks aren’t used much nowadays because of advancements in gas grill technology, but La Mexicana specially orders them for the unique flavor and char they provide.
Some of the restaurant’s most popular menu items include Mexican staples like fajitas and quesadillas, appetizers like shrimp limon and desserts such as flan and fried ice cream. La Mexicana offers more than classic food. The restaurant collaborates with local comedy club Give a Hoot Comedy to host free open mic nights on Wednesdays and charity drives on Fridays and Saturdays featuring comedians like Rahmein Mostafavi and Tracy Locke.
“My dad and I believe in giving,” says Ash of the charity shows at La Mexicana. “We decided that working with Give a Hoot was the best way we could give back to the community.”
Many of the charities that La Mexicana and Give a Hoot shows benefit are Maryland-based nonprofits. These include So What Else, which fights food insecurity in the Baltimore-Washington metro area, and Sunflower Bakery, which trains young adults with disabilities and helps them find work in the food and hospitality industries.
La Mexicana also features musical performances, karaoke and a combination of the two that Roy calls “Live Karaoke.” Restaurant patrons can sing along to their favorite songs while backed by a live band.
Renovations to the restaurant in March were done with these comedy and music performances in mind, putting them front and center.
“We want to make it more professional, more Comedy Central and more hip to attract a younger crowd,” Ash says before the renovations began. “And one way to do that is to make [the restaurant] more upscale. So we’re working on completely new decor, changing the color scheme and using our side room to highlight our comedy shows.”
“We have a very friendly atmosphere here,” notes Daniela Santiago, a bartender at La Mexicana. “Everybody knows everybody here since so many of our customers are regulars. It’s like a very friendly family.”
Says Roy, “Our goal is to have good food at good prices, in a family environment. We want people to enjoy it, so they can come as often as they want.”!
16134 Shady Grove Road
13016 Middlebrook Road