“Survivors? That’s us!” Mary Ellen Lee
Tia Queta, a traditional Mexican restaurant
tucked into the northeast end of downtown
Bethesda on Del Ray Avenue, is all about
familia. It is run by Roberto Montesinos, his
wife, Mary Ellen Lee, and their son Andrew,
and families are their customers. In the past
few months, the eatery has hosted christenings, a funeral and a Jewish shiva.
After graduating from American University, Roberto worked at several restaurants,
including the old Rio Grande on Rockville
Pike. When he opened his own place in
1980, he hoped his wide network of foodie
friends would support him. ;ey did. He also
reckoned that there was a mostly unfulfilled
yearning for traditional Mexican dishes—
real chiles rellenos, seafood, and sauces like
mole. Right again.
After a slow start, the restaurant began
to do a steady business. Friends helped with
word-of-mouth recommendations, and soon
it was the grown-up kids of the first patrons,
and then their kids. “We’ve served lots of
three-generation families, and some fours,”
says Lee, who’s Irish. She fell for Mexican
food—and then for Roberto.
In the early ’90s, the couple’s landlord,
who was ill, o;ered to sell them the building—a major reason they’re still operating.
“We couldn’t pay the rent in Bethesda now,”
Lee explains. Tia Queta looks modest from
the outside, but the main dining room seats
60, a back room for parties can accommodate 75, and the roof deck—as rare as
free parking spaces in Bethesda—can hold
about 60 patrons. “In warm weather, the big
draw is the roof,” Andrew says, adding that
special-event bookings are key to keeping
the restaurant profitable.
Tia Queta’s location is not ideal in present-day Bethesda; foot tra;c is light at best.
;e restaurant’s current challenge is dealing
with what’s going on around it. “;e past six
years there’s been construction in our immediate area,” Andrew says. “;ey close the
street or put bags on the meters to prohibit
parking, and they’ve broken gas and water
lines.” According to Lee, Tia Queta’s lunch
business has taken a big hit. “With all the
new residential going up, we’ll be OK if we
can live through the construction,” she says.
Many of Andrew’s friends from D.C.’s
Sidwell Friends School and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee—now highly
paid professionals—come to help out on
Cinco de Mayo. “Our customers may not
know that the waiter that day is a lawyer or
a CPA,” he says, laughing. Several years ago,
during jury selection in a D.C. courtroom, a
prospective juror signaled the judge when
the panel was asked if they knew anyone
involved in the case.
“I think one of the lawyers was my server
at a Mexican restaurant in Bethesda,” she
“Oh really,” the judge said. “Well, you are
dismissed—and how were the margaritas?” n
Steve Goldstein is a freelance writer and
editor and the former bureau chief in
Moscow and in Washington, D.C., for ;e
154 MAY/JUNE 2019 | BETHESDAMAGAZINE.COM
runs Tia Queta, a
in Bethesda, with his
wife, Mary Ellen Lee,
and their son Andrew.