In what will come as zero surprise to those who love not only the tacos and tortas of Sal y Limón, but the very spirit of the place, right from the start it’s been about family.
The roots of the restaurant that started in a gentrifying Fraserview, and has since spread to the Drive, Surrey, and Vancouver International Airport, can be traced back to a community centre in Vancouver. Originally from Manzanillo in Colima, Mexico, Sal y Limón co-owner Carolina Rivera moved to the West Coast after a stint in Montreal, where she got an e-commerce masters, met her husband Sebastien Jutras, and had her first child.
When a job opportunity landed her husband in Vancouver a second child followed. On mat leave with two little ones, Rivera spent plenty of time at the local community centre where she met and became friends with Adriana Cedeno, the wife of Sal y Limón cofounder and Ecuadorian chef Pepe Cedeno.
“My son was young, and my daughter was three-and-a-half,” Rivera recalls in a phone conversation with the Straight. “I found that there were no restaurant to actually go and bring your kids to and feel welcome. At the time it was just McDonald’s. What I felt was missing was a place where you could go eat good food, and if your kid cries nobody cares. That was top of mind for me, so when we met and started talking about food and restaurants I knew that I had found the right people with the right passion.”
Along with her husband, Rivera had helped run a sushi-restaurant chain in Montreal while attending school. Cedeno, meanwhile, knew how to run a kitchen. The initial goal was to build the kind of space—casual and colourful, family-friendly but funky—that would appeal to those who not only love Mexican food, but also the spirit of Mexico.
“It was all about ‘What can we afford to do ourselves?’” Rivera recalls of Sal y Limón’s first location, a 24-seat space on Kingsway. “So we got the rollers out and painted it ourselves. We took things that were authentic to us and created a little tiny space where kids could play and where there was good food in a place that reminded me of home.”
The original Sal y Limón—which expanded into the space next door a couple of years after opening—indeed channels the glorious colour-splashed chaos that is Mexico. Not the Americanized resorts or gated communities, but instead the feeling of being ringside at the gloriously chaotic Lucha Libre wrestling in Mexico City, marvelling at the folk art at Mercado de Artesanias in Oaxaca City, or standing at a street-stall while a boom box blares Juan Reynoso and Mariachi Reyes del Aserradero El Terreque. Adding to the infectious energy, there’s a kids’ play area so you can enjoy your food in blissful solitude for five minutes.
But ultimately, it’s about the food, with the tacos, burritos, and tortas coming in a myriad of options. Start with favourites like al pastor (marinated pork and pineapple), chorizo con papa (Mexican sausage and potatoes), carnitas (pulled pork belly), and barbacoa de cordero (roasted lamb). Get adventurous with pollo pabil (chicken marinated in sweet and spicy achiote paste) and lengua (beef tongue).
“We’ve tried to do things that are a little bit challenging for people, but within reason,” Rivera says with a laugh. “I don’t like the tongue, but lots of people love it.”
For the adults, Sal y Limón offers Margaritas (spicy or regular in mango, lime, and strawberry), traditional Palomas, and rum-infused housemade horchata. For the kids, Mexican Jarritos.
The best part of a visit to Sal y Limón was the pre-pandemic salsa bar, which offered Mexico’s most famous condiment in nine different varieties, including avocado, arbol, chipotle, peanut, and eye-watering diabla. (You can now order them in small containers that come with your meal).
While careful to note that Cedeno is the engine that drives the kitchen at Sal y Limón, Rivera notes that she helped shape the menu, drawing on traditions and recipes from her family.
“My mom used to have a restaurant,” she says. “When I went to university I lived with my older sister, and she and her husband owned a Mexican restaurant. I worked with them every weekend—that’s how I paid for my university. So some of the recipes at Sal y Limón are from my sister. Some of the salsas are ones we had at home.
“I cooked with my mom a lot,” Rivera continues. “I had seven sisters and a brother, so cooking was a big part of my culture at home. I was the one always asking my mom, ‘What did you put in there, and why?’ A lot of the things on the menu are things I cooked when we decided to open the restaurant with Pepe.”
From the day it opened, folks were lining up for Sal y Limón, which this year placed first in the Golden Plates for Best Mexican, and third in the Best Latin American and Best Tacos categories.
“We were still painting, and people were already trying to come in to buy tacos,” Rivera says with another laugh. “ I think they just wanted something different, so we were very blessed right from the start.”
That immediate success has made expanding to Commercial, Surrey, and YVR seem a little less daunting.
The attraction of the Mexican-themed mini-empire?
“We tried to do something that we could be proud of,” Rivera says. “My Mexican family is actually coming over in a month. I know that when they come to the restaurant, they will enjoy the food and say ‘This is really good.’ You even get double tortillas so you get full without having to pay that much. It’s good and cheap—that’s what reminds me of home.”