SARATOGA SPRINGS – When Mario Cardenas was a child in Guatemala City, his mother, Susana, sold pupusas and other street foods so that the family could afford to move to the United States.
Cardenas’ parents had divorced, and his mother wanted a better life for Mario and his younger sister, Jennifer, Mario Cardenas said.
In large part pupusas paid the way, Cardenas said. Now, he and his family, who already own award-winning pizza and chicken shops next door to each other in a Saratoga Springs strip mall, are hoping to open a third restaurant that will specialize in Guatemalan street food.
“So we’re doing a full circle,” said Cardenas, 39, while walking between West Avenue Pizzeria and West Ave Chicken on a bright October morning.
But even if Cardenas’ path has come full circle, the journey has been anything but straightforward.
Mario, Jennifer and their mother came to Los Angeles in the late 1990s when Cardenas and his sister were teenagers. After a year or two, the family relocated to Schenectady because Cardenas’ mom had a friend from Guatemala who lived there, and explained how life was easier and cheaper than in L.A.
In Schenectady, Mario Cardenas began washing dishes for Marino’s Pizza & Restaurant, working his way up in responsibility. In 2002, he moved on to Prima Pizzeria in Niskayuna, eventually becoming a manager.
The experience taught Cardenas plenty.
“Prima was special because we could switch anything. Like one day we’d come up with a dish or a different pizza. So it allowed me to be creative,” he said. “New soups, new salads, new everything.”
That creativity would be front and center as soon as Cardenas and his family opened a pizzeria of their own last June.
But at Prima, Cardenas was satisfied. He said he never considered opening his own restaurant. The pay was steady and he was fulfilled by his work. Meanwhile, his sister had steady employment at the then-Metro 20 Diner (now Capital City Diner), honing her skills in customer service and restaurant operations. And she eventually married her husband, Santos Maldonado, who was a chef for Delmonico’s Italian Steakhouse.
For many years things went smoothly for the Cardenas family. Then in October 2015 their world was rocked. Police showed up at 5 a.m. to arrest members of the family, Cardenas recalls.
The arrests were for charges of visa fraud that had come from signing paperwork when the family moved to the United States. The paperwork said they were from El Salvador rather than Guatemala. What resulted was a seven-year protracted legal battle that just ended last March, with the family facing community service and nominal fines.
As the case dragged on, it took a significant emotional toll.
“I was on hold there, you know?” Cardenas said. “I didn’t even know what the hell is going on.”
Cardenas still had his job at Prima, but he and his family, including his then-school-aged son, lived in constant fear of deportation or imprisonment.
In fact, Cardenas and his wife, Jacki, who is from Saratoga Springs, delayed having a second child as a result of the court case. They now have two sons, a 19-year-old and a 2-year-old.
Now that the case is behind them the family is eager to move forward, breathing a sigh of relief. Moving forward includes focusing fully on their new restaurants: West Avenue Pizzeria, which they opened in June 2021, and West Ave Chicken, which they opened seven months later. Cardenas said he only considered opening his own takeout and dine-in restaurants, which he now co-owns with his sister and her husband, after the Prima owner retired.
Cardenas first found the space for West Avenue Pizzeria, in the West Hill Plaza, then had the opportunity to open the next-door chicken shop when a chicken-wing chain was closing at the location. Cardenas and his family decided to take on both ventures.
The menus at the restaurants feature plenty of favorites — combined with subtle and not so subtle touches — that make the dishes unique. For instance, Cardenas sources his pepperoni from a local supplier, and Cardenas says the cured meat is unique to his family’s pizza shop. Rather than baking flat, the pepperoni slices pucker into small cups, containing the right touch of indulgent, greasy goodness. On the signature hot honey pizza, West Avenue pairs its pepperoni with a delightful drizzle of hot honey.
Other pizzas include the Tie-Dye pie, striped with pesto, tomato and vodka sauces over mozzarella; and the macaroni and cheese pizza, which may just be the new favorite mash-up of every kid — and kid at heart.
Highlights at West Ave Chicken include the Honkey Tonk, a take on the Nashville staple, which harmonizes the right amount of heat coming from the cayenne mixture with the crunch and zip of the pickles, slaw and spice coating.
Meanwhile, The Susie, named after Cardenas’ mother, is a comforting take on a simple chicken sandwich, topped with tomato, lettuce, onion and mayo — like its namesake, the sandwich is no muss, no fuss.
But as renowned as the food is at both restaurants — the two businesses have combined to win nine awards since June of last year — Cardenas said the restaurants began getting requests for different kinds of food during the summer horseracing season. Cardenas said some of the seasonal workers who come to Saratoga Springs for the annual racing meet discovered that the family was Hispanic and began asking if the cooks — many of whom are Cardenas’ relatives — could make items such as taquitos, tacos — and pupusas.
Soon a “secret” menu developed. That menu, which is currently on the back of the West Ave Chicken menu, will be the basis for the staples of the third restaurant, Maize, which Cardenas is hoping to open soon. He and the family are currently shopping for real estate but haven’t yet found a home.
The pupusas on the menu are just like the ones made by Cardenas’ late mother, who died of brain cancer in 2019 at the age of 55. Pupusas are grilled tortillas stuffed with any combination of mozzarella, pork and beans, and topped with cabbage and a light tomato salsa.
“Oh, she would be super happy,” Cardenas said of serving Guatemalan food. “She’s a big part of what we do. After all we’ve gone through, we’re now in the position to give my mother what she deserves.”