“This is the nicest restaurant in New West.” I’m standing in the doorway of El Santo on a chilly Saturday night, and it’s close quarters, so the chit chat of two customers waiting near me is easily audible.
It’s on the early side for dinner–just past 5:30 pm–but the room is filling up, and the room is humming. Wait staff dressed in anything from Converse to more form fitting dresses slide between tables carrying plates bearing still-sizzling whole fish, pairs of tacos, or chilaquiles loaded with pork belly.
The light is dim, but not dark, and what appears to be a diverse swath of diners dots the yellow-lit landscape of the dining room and bar. Young guys with piercings in hoodies, ladies out for a multi-generational family dinner, couples with out of town friends in tow. (My date is my three-year-old son, who ultimately opted to skip on ordering from El Santo’s thoughtful kids’ menu.)
At a quick glance, it’s pretty easy to see that El Santo is a draw in the area.
When it comes to real estate, it’s all about location. And while location is key when it comes to restaurants, timing is also a major player.
In an era where the culinary pundits are telling us to keep an eye on a new class of modern chefs coming from Mexico, coupled with Metro Vancouver’s expanding appetite for Mexican cuisine that crosses the border from combo platters and giant margs and that pushes further than hipster tacos, now could very well be the right time for more nuanced Mexican fare in the Lower Mainland.
This is, indeed, what compelled hospitality industry vet Alejandro Diaz to open El Santo in late 2015. Diaz, who lives just a few minutes from his restaurant, is working with Chef Shane King to bring the multiregional flavours and traditions of Mexico with fresh, local ingredients to suburban Vancouver’s diners.
Passionate about the restaurant biz, New West, and the exciting Mexican fare El Santo offers, Diaz is a familiar sight on the floor, greeting friends or guiding groups to their table with gracious hospitality.
The food at El Santo is at once accessible and adventurous. It’s not a stretch for cheese lovers to be drawn to the molten ooze of their Queso Fundido, served with a homey cloth pocket of warm tortillas for dipping.
Mexican food always brings with it the spirit of sharing, and eating with your hands, and even in a restaurant where neighbouring tables are ordering wine by the bottle you can still enjoy dipping in the hot queso, or their fresh salsas and guac.
Grab a knife and DIY your own salad plate thanks to El Santo’s riff on a Caesar salad (its origin story pins it to Mexico, by the way) called Tijuana 1924 that showcases grilled romaine hearts with pepitas (pumpkin seeds), a charred lemon vinaigrette, earthy manchego cheese, and crunchy curls of chicharron (fried pork rind).
Diaz says he wanted to ensure El Santo stretched the imagination beyond tacos, but of course they do serve tacos–plenty of them. More so, their entrees are worlds away from your neighbourhood whitewashed beans-and-rice combo platters; look for things like a succulent Carnitas made with duck leg, or a chili-rubbed Rib Eye steak.
Dessert fans will want to save room for El Santo’s whimsical bag of piping hot churros, dusted in a finger-sticking cinnamon sugar coating with a side of dulce de leche for dipping.
El Santo was packed by the time we got to dessert, and it was barely what most city dwellers would consider the dinner hour. As the rain fell outside on New West’s riverside sidewalks, light flickered against the restaurant’s pastel blue walls boasting embroidery inspired by the folk art of Diaz’s Mexico, and patrons spread vibrantly hued knit blankets El Santo has on hand across their laps.
New Westminster is certainly ready for modern Mexican cuisine. Is El Santo the nicest restaurant in the area? It may very well be. Be that as it may, it doesn’t take itself too seriously (there’s a Mexican wrestler’s mask made of wine corks on one wall), but it does make for a seriously great spot to eat in New West.
Address: 680 Columbia Street, New Westminster