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  • Writer's pictureJacinth Jones

Why El Rey is a Cultural Staple to Howard University

El Rey, a U Street Mexican restaurant known for their tacos and tequila, was set to close indefinitely Oct. 31.

Every college has their favorite bar permeated with hazy and blurred memories. At Howard University, all roads lead to El Rey. The sacred institution partly defines what it means to be a Bison so when the Washington City Paper initially reported the treasured U Street bar was closing indefinitely after Halloween, Howard students and alumni were struck by overwhelming shock and nostalgia.

“It felt like a part of Howard was being taken away from us,” said Bryce Newby, a 2019 graduate.

“So many memories were established there,” shared Tierra Perdue, a 2018 graduate. “It brought us all together. After class, on a Thursday or Friday, we went to El Rey. It was one big family gathering for tacos and tequila. It allowed for a community of friendship, a lot of bonding and just a good time.”

“It was definitely a day of mourning. People were scrambling for a sense of what was next because it's so familiar to us,” said Judy Oranika, a recent graduate from Howard’s College of Medicine. “El Rey is such a staple to Howard and is everyone’s first U Street experience. For it to close after all these years - without notice - caught everyone off guard.”

“Where were we gonna go?” asked Keyshawn Astin who graduated in May. “They make a lot of money. Trust me. I’ve given them some money. So I was really surprised to hear them go over other places on U Street.”

The unexpected news prompted students and alumni who reside in the area to venture out of a nearly seven-month enforced COVID-19 hibernation and reconvene at their main alcoholic stomping ground before the famed bar was no longer.

“I went back a couple of weeks ago and there were a lot of HU19. It was so much fun to just be outside of El Rey - loud as hell - kiki-ing it up with people I went to college with. Even with all that’s going on, we’re still going to make it a good time but it does feel different. We’re having to wait hours just to get inside since seating capacity is limited. But I personally like it more spread out because finding somewhere to sit was always my least favorite part,” Newby reminisced.

“Pre-COVID, as soon as you walked in, you scoped out to see who was about to leave. As soon as they got up, you took your ass to that booth because we had to find a seat. That’s the first thing on my mind because there was never anywhere to sit,” Astin said.

A month after the bar’s initial announcement, El Rey pulled what some would say a classic Howard finesse and tweeted they would not close on October 31 “and will stay open for as long as we can - for you, for our staff, for DC.”

Before COVID, the five to seven minute walk from campus was met with a ridiculously long line wrapped around the corner of Vermont Avenue filled with young Black twenty-somethings. Something about their nachos, tequila cocktails and $28 pitchers of strong frozen strawberry margaritas were enough to have students waiting sometimes in temperatures below freezing.

“That dang line. You had to get there right when it opened because it was ridiculous. There were times where I was like “oh girl hey, let me slide up there with you,” recalled Perdue. “You were waiting 20 to 30 minutes because it was that popular. We often questioned if the wait was worth it but we stayed anyways because we knew the experience we were about to have.”

Tierra Perdue (center left) with friends Chelsea Odonkor (L), Betty Ogba (center right) and Maya King (R) at El Rey in February.

Once inside, students would hurriedly find friends either loudly conversing with the bartender on probably their third order of the night, packed like sardines in the seating area along the wall or in the bathroom taking selfies or boomerangs signaling to followers what was bound to be an entertaining night.

“Walking into El Rey is so chaotic but you walk in there knowing it’s going to be a good time. Everyone’s yelling and screaming but you’re also seeing people you didn’t plan to see so it makes the night even better. You can see someone you had class with first semester freshman year and it just feels good,” Newby said.

“El Rey has allowed me to link up with people I hadn’t seen in a minute. It’s definitely the place that brings everyone together. Sometimes you forget about people and when you see them it’s like “wow what have you been doing? How has it been going?" It’s a reassuring feeling to see and engage with people you hadn’t seen in a while,” added Perdue.

“When you go in there, you don’t know who you’re going to run into. That’s why you can start and end the night at El Rey. It’s a central and convenient place for everyone,” said Astin.

Keyshawn Astin, a 2020 graduate, drinking a frozen margarita with a side of nachos.

The Mexican taco and tequila bar, often described as Hell Rey, was definitely the move for any type of celebration. Whether it was birthdays, homecoming, grad week, surviving finals or even Match Day for medical students, it was common to roll at least 10 deep to the initial prime nightlife destination.

Oranika, a double Howard alumna, knows more than anyone how “El Rey is so niche to the Howard community.” She graduated from the university’s six-year accelerated BS/MD program in 2019 and was able to differentiate the El Rey undergraduate and medical school experience.

Judy Oranika (center right) taking a selfie with friends from Howard's College of Medicine at El Rey last May.

“Med school was a little bit different. People were feeling a little looser with their money so the pitchers were more free flowing which made for a good time. The stressors were higher so we celebrated a bit more freely.”

“The student experience is very balling on a budget. The alumni experience is still balling on a budget but it's like I prepared for this. I have the coins so I'm not gonna worry about my card getting declined. In the student days, you got the Cash Apps before anything and made sure the math was mathing,” said Newby

Bryce Newby (C) with 2019 graduates Nayssa DeVora Davis (L) and Jeffery Taylor (R) at El Rey in July 2019.

El Rey was definitely the start to an intoxicated night with possible drunken walks to other U Street lounges or Uber rides to nightclubs on Connecticut Avenue before sometimes ending the night back at El Rey.

“It’s just programmed in us to go to El Rey first. If we get two to three pitchers, we’re already set for the night. Even if you didn't go to El Rey first, you ended your night there,” Perdue mentioned.

“El Rey is one of those places that is always reliable. The nachos are gonna be good and the drinks as well. It’s always a fun place to gather and such a good focal point to start or end the night. I’ve never gone to El Rey and had a bad time,” shared Oranika.

El Rey is a culture passed down to students who eagerly await their 21st birthday. One would think this tradition is years in the making but the U Street taqueria has only been open since 2014.

“The older HU classes made El Rey into like a rites of passage. I remember as a freshman seeing my sister go and wonder what made this place so special. There’s so much anticipation and when your first night actually arrives, it delivers. You’re not really an alum until you’ve had a drunk El Rey night. Those margaritas and nachos don’t play,” said Newby.

Oranika, who was at Howard before El Rey existed, said she was also introduced by upperclassmen. “To the naked eye, I understand why it looks like another spot to go get margaritas. But what’s special about El Rey is what it represents to Howard. It’s a tradition passed down. That’s where you hear all the upperclassmen go and next thing you know, you’re in Towers seeing people leave on Fridays to start the night off at El Rey with you and your friends trailing behind.”

“If you weren't going to El Rey, you started because you knew that was going to be the consistent move. This is the culture. If you don’t have a glass in your hand at El Rey, you better get one because someone has a pitcher on the way for you,” said Perdue.

Students and alumni now have a little more time to relive and preserve the undergraduate memories made years ago or make new ones in slightly different circumstances. Long live the renowned bathroom selfies and drinking overly priced margaritas under cotton candy and starry night skies at 919 U St. NW.

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