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Sol Food

Café del Sol serves up a bright interpretation of global cuisine.

Story and photos by April Bartel

It all started with pizza, that humble Italian flatbread Americans adopted as their own.  

David Juarez was a veteran pizzeria owner by the time he created Café del Sol, an internationally eclectic cafe with Italian favorites, like pizza, at its core. He opened the first 50-seat restaurant in 2004 in Greencastle, PA. Over the previous decade, Juarez and his family opened numerous restaurants in Greencastle, Shippensburg, Marion, and Hagerstown, but he wanted to try something different that wouldn’t compete with his existing places.

“It was still loosely based on a pizzeria, but maybe a step above,” says current business partner Corey Leon. “It incorporated more unique ingredients and menu items that were uncommon in smaller cities.”

At that time, Leon worked at Brother’s Pizza in Hagerstown’s Long Meadow shopping center, owned by Juarez’ brother. “I was a young guy,” he says, “working and saving up as much money as I could.”  But he recognized the opportunity when he saw it. The new, progressive eatery was doing healthy business in Greencastle, even for a smaller market. Guests embraced Café del Sol for its imaginative combinations, well-balanced flavors, and consistent quality.

Excited to press on, the pair united and signed a lease on a second location before it was even built. Amid a housing boom and a corresponding labor crunch, it took a year and a half to complete the building, but they hit it just right. Café del Sol Hagerstown opened in January 2006. As Leon recalls, “There was an early review in the newspaper, and it was a good one. The next thing you knew, we had lines out the door and there wasn’t even a sign on the building yet.”

The place, Leon admits, never had a lot of curb appeal, although it is conveniently located off Route 81’s Exit 7A. It is a petite strip of sand-colored cement blocks among houses and trees that sits somewhat perpendicular to the main road, partially shrouding the facade from traffic. (Don’t rely on Google search to get you there. Trust us. Type the street address, 1481 Salem Ave., in directly.) Its unassuming situation makes it a hidden gem for thousands of travelers and local fans who find the place and make it part of their regular routine.

Leon reads the online reviews. “A lot of people comment ‘don't be scared of the exterior. It’s really nice inside.’”

That, it is. The interior is casually elegant, greeting guests with a view of the kitchen across a substantial marble countertop. The dining room blends sleek black and gray against tones of warm terracotta and wood. 

Café del Sol’s huge brick oven is prominently displayed, finished with stony gray tiles for a cozy, rustic appeal. In its searing confines, pizza artisans transform dough and toppings into light and crispy, return visit-worthy pizzas in 10” and 14” sizes. Each pie starts with dough made by hand in-house with olive oil and sea salt, then piled with a base of whole milk mozzarella and aged Romano cheeses. Characterized as “California” pizza for its creative toppings and international influences, guests can opt for Tuscan Hummus or Shrimp Tostada versions. The hummus is flavored with roasted red peppers and dotted with purple kalamata olives, spinach, tender artichokes, and Portobello mushrooms; while the Tostada features sweet shrimp, cheddar, black beans, chorizo, and Pico de Gallo. There is also a cheesesteak pizza with smoked gouda and a Greek style that plays on the traditional beef/lamb gyro with tzatziki sauce. Of course, guests can always customize a pizza with popular favorites like pepperoni, sausage, salami, and, yes, even pineapple.

“We try to take it to the next level,” says Leon, noting that, while pizza is a strong component of the menu, its depth has evolved to include many other fan favorites. “We don't change the menu very frequently. It’s already very large and diverse, especially for the size of the place. So, we focus on being consistent.” One longstanding best seller is the avocado club panini. When testing new dishes, the owners look for trends and ingredients making a splash in big cities around the globe. Patrons decide what makes the cut, via sales. 

“Sometimes we’re a little too far ahead,” says Leon, recalling ahi tuna’s introduction 13 years ago. The response was flat then. Now, the ahi tuna salad is another best seller. It is an Asian-inspired meal that starts with a bed of field greens, pretty watermelon radish, and edamame (soybeans) topped with seared yellowfin tuna and finished with vibrant sesame mango salsa and a carrot miso ginger vinaigrette, ending with a flourish of five-spice almonds.

For appetizers there are ahi tuna tostadas with citrusy yuzu and mango, crab nachos, panko fried avocados, or moon-shaped mozzarella rounds. The bao sliders app is another fan favorite. They are soft, steamed buns filled with sweet-savory Korean BBQ pork and Asian slaw with a schmear of piquant gochujang mayo. The Korean pork also shows up in one of Café del Sol’s popular rice bowls, matched with yuzu aioli, mango, avocado, and tequila pickled jalapenos. All rice bowls start with cumin-spiced basmati rice dotted with black beans and a side of naan. There’s a chipotle pesto beef tenderloin version, achiote chicken, and shrimp and chorizo as well.

Diners can load up the table with Italian lasagna, south-of-the-border chimichurri steak tacos, Cuban sandwiches, and Maryland crabcakes all at one sitting. Even the fresh-cut French fries get a dash of flair in flavors like spiced sea salt, bacon aioli, black truffle, or garlic parmesan.

Since consistency is key, diners can find their favorite dish at all five Café del Sol locations: Hagerstown, Martinsburg, Chambersburg, Waynesboro, and Winchester. The Winchester, VA, location is newest. It features a large party room and full bar. Regular local customers also recognize pride of ownership. Although Café del Sol isn’t franchising, each place has its own operating owner, with Carla Protsch at the helm in Hagerstown.

“I think that’s been a big part of our success as we’ve grown,” says Leon. “We’ve opened doors for other people to come in and have a chance to operate their own business.”

Café del Sol also weathered recent COVID considerations with aplomb. Like other restaurants, they struggle with ingredient and labor shortages, but they had systems in place to support online ordering and a healthy take-out business prior to lockdowns. That helped. Leon shares, “We were used to doing roughly 30 percent take out, so we were able to make that shift fairly seamlessly.”

Pandemic aside, the collective is still making progress. Leon says he is eyeing locations in Frederick or Leesburg and expects to open a sister restaurant, Coast Taco Bar in Hagerstown off Eastern Boulevard, within the next few weeks. Housed in the former Warehouse Taproom site, Coast will offer a similarly inventive take on another beloved import to the American diet. Leon promises a variety of interesting street tacos, a full bar, and outdoor seating that channels the same ethos as Café del Sol. 

Overall, Leon is proud of the burgeoning business because it satisfies a hunger for good food and opportunity. “The restaurant industry is one of those where, if you want to work hard and you are dedicated, there are always opportunities to move forward.”