By Brittany Tiplady
Alejandro Diaz’s contemporary Mexican restaurant, El Santo, opened in 2015 and has remained a New Westminster favourite year after year—pandemic and all.
Along with Executive Chef Sam Fabbro, El Santo has garnered rave reviews and critical acclaim since opening. Diaz and his team have been featured in regional and national publications alike, such as the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun. The restaurant has also taken home some impressive hardware — earning gold at the Vancouver Magazine Awards for Best Latin Restaurant (2017).
Not to be outdone, though, the El Santo team are also good, honest, and charitable people. Diaz is passionate about giving back to organizations like Canucks Autism Network, and nearby shelters in New West. It’s the kind of place you can feel good about giving your business to, with the bonus of the food and drink being second to none. *All photos care of Andrea Iñurria
I had the pleasure of chatting with Diaz about the food he loves, the restaurant industry, and the importance of giving back to the community.
Owning a restaurant is a huge job. What made you step into the industry?
Diaz: I opened El Santo a little over six years ago. I’ve been working in the hospitality business for 25 years. I come from Mexico City, and when I came to Canada, I started from scratch. My background is in finance, but my first job in hospitality was as a dishwasher, and kitchen assistant. I also worked for a while in hotels.
I always had a passion for Mexican food, and being a Mexican, I really wanted to show that our food is much more than enchiladas and tacos-–tacos are part of our culture, but there is much more than that….At El Santo, we want you to experience the modern side of Mexican food.
What makes El Santo special?
Diaz: We go above and beyond. For example, we make our own tortillas in-house. In Mexico, your mom goes to the market 3-4 times a week. So your freezer is really only for ice cream. You make your food from scratch every day, and that’s something we like to do at El Santo. Everything we do is from scratch, from our tortillas to our churros, sour cream, everything. Sam [our chef] has a passion for sustainability and local vendors.
Tell me about the El Santo Menu. What are some fan favourites, and what are your favourites?
Diaz: We try to go with the seasons, so the menu changes four times a year.
But, there are a couple of things we can’t really take off the menu because people love them. Some of them being: the Carne Asada, the Chile Relleno (Poblano, panela cheese, green rice, salsa ranchera), the Sopa Azteca (Pulled Fraser Valley chicken, avocado, tortilla strips, crema, chili tomato broth, Oaxaca cheese) –those are dishes that stay.
But Sam also loves to experiment with different things; for example, the Risotto.
People don’t think about Mexican food when they see a Risotto, but when Sam makes it, he takes it to a totally different level. Another thing that people really like at El Santo is the El Vincente cocktail. It’s a barrel-aged cocktail. I think along with margaritas, that’s our signature drink.
Okay, when you’re not eating at El Santo, where are you eating?
Diaz: Being in the industry, we like to see what other people are doing. Just to keep up with the trends. For the past couple of years, of course, we have gone out less, but something that we used to do in Mexico, is going to a different area and seeing what trends are happening there. We would go to Mexico City, we would go to Jalisco, [and so on], and learn more about their techniques.
One thing about me is I don’t drink. For people that don’t drink, it’s important to have good non-alcoholic drinks with fresh ingredients on your menu. You don’t always need spirits to have a good time.
What do you look for in a dining experience?
Diaz: At the end of the day, people can cook at home. So when you go out, you’re not just looking for the food, you want the experience of being pampered, you want to feel special.
It’s not just about a good steak but about where it came from, how the service is. If someone comes in [to El Santo] more than once, it’s now on us to know what that guest likes. As a guest myself, that kind of treatment and dining experience makes me feel special.
Something that I always say is “ you’re building relationships, not transactions.”
What do you love about the New West Community?
Diaz: I wanted to open a restaurant where I live–because it doesn’t just feel like opening a restaurant, it feels like you are a part of the community.
We try to give back. We have partnered with a couple of charities over the past six years, and our charity of choice is CAN, Canucks Autism Network. They have programs for families with kids on the spectrum. For the past couple of years, and every time we do a fundraiser, our funds go to them. We have raised close to $100,000 over the past few fundraisers. For me, it’s not just money, it’s also awareness. I have a couple of kids on the spectrum, so it’s something close to my heart. It’s very meaningful. It’s not just giving money, it’s also about how we can really make a difference in those kids’ lives.
For me, it’s important to be an employer that’s inclusive so when those kids finish school, they have somewhere to go. At the end of the day, those people are part of the community.
I know we are tired of this question, but it’s impossible to ignore. How is El Santo doing despite the pandemic and all the pivots that came with it?
Diaz: The past couple of years have been very difficult. It’s been financially challenging and emotionally draining, but something that helped us get through is being an independent restaurant with people who have been supporting us since the beginning. We’re like a little family. They have been there for me, and I have been there for them. Also, having a strong and cohesive team has helped us through the changes.
We have great staff, and they’ve really helped us through. And we have great partners.
People have this stereotype that Mexican food should be cheap and big. But for me, Mexican food is about quality, freshness, and a welcoming atmosphere.