On this evening, with a whiff of spring in the air, the crowd at Mio stands chest to chest at the bar, three, four deep, elbowing for a view of the World Baseball Classic championship match between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico playing on the TV. A swarm of business-suited executives and tweedy lawyers roars, slaps high-fives, and calls out for shots of Barrilito rum. In the lounge, young women cram thigh to thigh on the low sofas, balancing margaritas and mojitos, half listening to the wonks and political operatives plying them with attention.
But the real action is a few steps up, in the semiprivate mezzanine dining area, where the ball game is playing on a movie-size screen and white-clothed tables are grouped against the walls to make space for a standing-room-only crush of Latino insiders, several members of Congress and White House advisers, Democratic Party donors, and an assortment of hangers-on, many of them personal guests of Andrés W. López, a Puerto Rican lawyer and major fundraiser for Barack Obama.
For months after the election, López was courted and toasted, his brisk rise in party politics celebrated in Latino circles. In a short time he had become a familiar face: He starred in and was executive producer of the first Latino inaugural celebration at the Kennedy Center, and in March he picked up an award for the Futuro Fund he cofounded with actress Eva Longoria and San Antonio businessman Henry R. Muñoz III. Together they had raised a record-breaking $32 million from fellow Latinos, a feat that proved to the political world that Hispanics could bring in the votes and, what’s more, big money.
López is 43, with a steamrolling personality, Ivy League tailoring and boyish charm, two Harvard degrees, athletic six-foot-four looks, a picture-perfect family (a lawyer wife and three young sons), and a fast-track career that has him shuttling between San Juan and Washington, with side trips to Miami and Orlando. A certified up-and-comer in the Hispanic ecosystem of Washington, he could have any party room at the city’s big-name hotels and just about any restaurant table. But Mio is special.
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Everyone goes to Mio, people told me when I hit town last winter. A contemporary Latin American restaurant on a dull stretch of Vermont Avenue in downtown DC, it’s a mini-power hub and party central, its booming popularity paralleling the rising wave of Latino high achievers in Washington’s political culture.
Andrés López and Manuel “Pico” Iguina, Mio’s owner, share interests beyond their place of birth. Iguina has fashioned Mio into a beehive where deals are transacted and connections made under the whir of piped-in Caribbean rhythms. He knows how to listen and how to keep his mouth shut. He works the house, bear-hugging regulars, cheek-pecking women friends, lingering with newcomers while keeping an eye on the busy open kitchen where his fellow Puerto Rican, Giovanna Huyke, the fiftysomething veteran chef, flutters from station to station.
On any given day, patrons might include Ralph G. Patino, a trial lawyer and Futuro Fund board member; Representative José Antonio “Joe” Garcia Jr., a Miami lawyer who is former president of the Cuban American National Foundation; and Jose F. Nino, former United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president and a big fan of Andrés López.
“I’d back him for anything,” Nino tells me, “Senate, Congress—you name it.”
Iguina beams hearing this. He had spotted López early on, when López rustled into his restaurant with an entourage. Iguina offered him a regular table in a partly secluded corner, and López invited Iguina and his wife, Karla, a former travel-and-hospitality executive from Mexico, to the White House for a Christmas party with the Obamas.
“I felt very humble,” Iguina says, trying to appear modest. The 52-year-old son of a prominent San Juan family, a college dropout and juvenile beach bum, he has come a long way from the kitchens of Georgetown restaurants where he got his start in his twenties.
“I loved chopping and cutting and serving—could do it for hours,” Iguina says. After he learned the basics of the trade in Georgetown, he opened a place in San Juan with his savings and a little family money, got married, had two daughters, went broke, escaped for a year in a friend’s 40-foot sailboat, then returned to Washington to start over.
With Karla keeping the books at the restaurant and keeping him in line, he’s pretty much settled. They live near Alexandria with their 1½-year-old, Carlos Manuel, and have plenty of family around. His mother lives with them; Karla’s mom, a physician, visits often from Chiapas, Mexico; his older sister lives in Silver Spring; and his two adult daughters, who work with him, live nearby. On Sundays, he kicks back at home, relaxing in the kitchen, cooking for friends, and, in summer, roasting whole pigs in a pit in his yard the way it was done in his childhood.
But his business antenna pings six days a week from morning to late night. He can smell a winner, and a phony. He can spot a big fish and the biting minnows around it.
“I put people together,” he says. “That’s what I do. I am the kitchen, and I am the front of the house. I am everything.”