Oscar Rodriguez has been on Beacon Hill since 1991.
How he got there is a familiar story, but from a different time. Rents were rising on Capitol Hill in 1991, and he and his brother Luis were feeling the squeeze. They found relief with a two-bedroom apartment just a little farther south in North Beacon Hill. But something was missing. In the time of coffee carts and start-up cafes, Oscar realized the only spot on Beacon Hill to get a cup of coffee was the local Shell station. Motivated by a friend’s purchase of a new car, Oscar thought “I can invest less than that and maybe do something here. So that’s what I did. I had a couple of credit cards. I bought a machine and rented this little space and that’s how it all started.”
Ten years later, Luis took over the coffee business and opened The Station, while Oscar rented out what is now the kitchen and bar area and opened Java Love, now Baja Bistro. Originally from Mexico, Oscar wanted to showcase the recipes and methods that had been passed down in his family. The menu was a big hit.
Rodriguez soon made friends with local drag queen Atasha Manila, who performed at Inay’s across the street, adorning the walls with her photos. A member of the LGBTQ community himself, it was a natural fit. Since he was often working as a bartender, Rodriguez’s friends would stop by often for a drink and conversation. Occasionally customers would come into the bar, not realizing how popular it had become in the gay community, and make comments about the number of gay customers there. So Rodriguez hung up a rainbow flag—“It’ll be sort of like a filter,” he says now. “You know if you see the flag and you have a problem with it, don’t come in. That attracted more people. It just sort of became a little haven for the gay community.”
That flag proved a life-changing experience. “I met my partner here,” he says. “He came in and asked me out. I told him I don’t date customers; I don’t go out with my customers.” The lovestruck customer told Rodriguez that he wouldn’t come back as a customer unless he got a date. “That was almost 18 years ago.” This isn’t the only tale of romance in this tucked-away corner of Beacon Hill: “At least five couples have met here and got married,” Rodriguez says. He’s thrilled that Baja Bistro has become a community gathering space. “We meet our neighbors here. On Capitol Hill, you disappear into the crowd, but here, people want to get to know each other or want to talk to each other. You rarely see people on their phones.”
Rodriguez’s business isn’t just a refuge for the LGBTQ community, it also serves a banging diner breakfast and a praiseworthy asada torta. The bar is tiny and often crowded, but always welcoming to everyone. “I am very proud of the fact that we have created a little place where everybody is nice and everybody is nice to each other, and everybody is themselves.” He says that he appreciates the diversity of Beacon Hill, especially in light of Capitol Hill’s shifting demographics. “I’ve been here so long that I know the prostitutes and the homeless people,” he says. “One of the things that we do is, we don’t say no to someone who wants to use the bathroom just because they’re homeless. We try to treat everyone, including people on the fringe, with respect.”
Not only does Rodriguez provide a safe community environment for Baja Bistro’s LGBTQ patrons, he’s also created 18 jobs for the community. “It feels really good because when you hear all the rhetoric that’s coming from the president—the crap that he said about Mexicans being criminals and rapists or taking other people’s jobs—I made my job, and we created jobs for 18 of our neighbors.”