A relatively new establishment in New Westminster has caught the attention of foodies across the Lower Mainland, and as this seemingly never-ending winter continues to rage on, it’s offering residents at least one thing they can take comfort in: damn good food.
For those lucky enough to have experienced El Santo’s rich cultural influence and creative offerings, Mexican cuisine has taken on an entirely new meaning.
Situated in the heart of the Royal City's downtown core (680 Columbia Street), the city’s most distinct Mexican eatery brings big-city ambience to a suburb that lacks restaurants of its conceptual nature—not to mention its quality.
Since it opened in December of 2015, El Santo has made its mark among those who call New West home, but for those living in neighbouring cities like Burnaby and Vancouver, a short SkyTrain ride and one-block jaunt are well worth it.
Some might question El Santo's location, but owner Alejandro Diaz, originally from Mexico City, says that the suburb's lack of fresh and innovative culinary offerings made it the perfect place for his restaurant.
"I live in New West, and I wanted to create something a little more unique," Diaz tells the Straight over the phone. "Living here, I really wanted to do something to be part of the community."
After moving to the city in 2010, Diaz observed the gap in the market, and envisioned creating an establishment that tied together both traditional Mexican fare and local, West Coast ingredients, for a dining experience quite different from the Americanized Mexican culinary experience that seems to revolve around taquerias and food trucks.
"My passion is food, and one of the things that I wanted to show people is that Mexican food is more than what they know," Diaz adds.
Diaz recruited West Coast chef Shane King, a longtime friend and associate, to conceptualize the menu and create the unique dishes that combine local ingredients and traditional dishes in the way that he imagined.
"We made a trip to Mexico City in the infancy of the restaurant, before we even got the space," King recalls to the Straight. "We did a week-long tour of fine-dining establishments. Mexico City has quite the culinary scene, and it's escalating as we speak."
One picks up on the friendly, almost family-like relationship between staff at El Santo almost instantly. Front-of-house employees including servers and bartenders are educated in each dish’s distinct flavours, and also receive tequila and mezcal training—something Diaz says is absolutely necessary.
“It helps when you taste the food and know the flavours. Consistency is very important for us,” he says.
“We all get along, and for that reason, the front-of-house and back-of-house work so well together,” King adds. “It’s the way restaurant startups are going now, and we really get along and respect each other.”
Among the list of menu must-haves are King’s to-die-for, top secret recipe Pan de Elote, an adorable made-to-order skillet cornbread served with jalapeño jelly; and Carnitas de Pato, braised duck tacos served with achiote and citrus marinade, fresh roasted tomatillo and guajillo salsa, and guacamole.
El Santo’s winter feature menu highlights a richness one can only identify with comfort food. Brussel sprout lovers will lose their minds over Coles de Bruselas Crujientes, crispy sprouts doused in habanero cream and sprinkled with pepitas and cotija cheese, while carnivores will find themselves considering the magic that goes into Chiles en Nogada, a stuffed poblano pepper positively loaded with stewed prime rib, dried fruit, and dressed in in a walnut and goat cheese cream.
El Santo also boasts an impressive selection of beverages: if you escaped your early 20s without an aversion to tequila, the restaurant’s expansive list of offerings can be ordered in a tasting flight, while inventive cocktails employ ingredients like house-made horchata and spicy morita pepper tea.
Looking ahead, King says he’s eager for the springtime, as it means the return of local farmers markets, and thus, fresh, new ingredients.
“We have good relationships with a lot of local farms in the Fraser Valley and the interior, and I’ve got a few menu ideas invested in those markets,” he says.
In keeping with Diaz’s focus on community, the restaurant hosts live music every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, bringing in both Latin and jazz musicians for upbeat, lively performances.
After just over a year in business, El Santo has certainly established itself as one of New West’s hottest destinations for date nights or a night out with friends, and one this resident can’t wait to visit again.