Taco lovers, listen up. Two words why you need to get to The Saint as soon as possible: Álvaro Candela. He's the guy behind the wildly popular Monday taco nights at Matt Dillon's Sitka & Spruce that ended last month when Candela accepted the job as executive chef at Capitol Hill's "tequila salvation" on the corner of Olive and Howell. Those taco nights, which lasted more than three years, were the first time Candela got to really full-on cook in the U.S. since moving to Seattle 16 years ago.
I had dinner with Candela and his new boss, Quentin Ertel, who also owns nearby Havana. We all talked about food, of course, but I wasn't expecting Candela to be so passtionate about the food he grew up and subsequently brought to The Saint. He wasn't cooking that night, but the food was specatcular. And if we were writing our Best Mexican Restaurants dining guide today, it would have made the cut.
Candela and Ertel met through Dillon. "When I was looking to do more than Monday night’s, Matt put me in touch with Quentin."
“And then Matt said the same thing to me," says Ertel. "I was looking at places in Pioneer Square around the same time he was [building Bar Sajor]. I wanted to put a version of The Saint down there. He said, ‘You know who you need to talk to? You need to talk to Alvaro.’ An then that space didn’t happen. When I needed a new chef here, I called Alvaro, thinking he could point me in the direction of someone who could do it, because I never thought I’d actually be able to get Alvaro to come over.”
Here are a few highlights from our margarita and taco-fuled conversation:
Which came first: taco night at Sitka & Spruce or you?
I actually met Matt twice. First, at an event. And then again when I was hired to do a chef’s going-away party. And then when he was moving Sitka [to Melrose Market] I was just about to leave Vios in Ravenna (where Candela was a manager), and Matt called and asked me [to do taco night].
What was the first thing you thought when you saw The Saint’s old menu?
The first thing that came to mind is that I could do better. Coming from a Mexican mind, the menu was a little off, because [the former chef] had a little bit of everything, which is something I’ve seen in a lot of Mexican restaurants. Of course, my concept is tacos only. I thought also that the quality of food I was making was of higher standards—everything fresh, nothing canned, nothing frozen or anything like that. From my experience at Sitka & Spruce (and private catering) I always thought the easiest way to open the American market to good Mexican food from Mexico was tacos.
What menu items do you think are the most authentic?
Definitely the suadero (tacos with braised beef belly, roasted tomatillo salsa, cilantro and red onion).
I think you can see lots of versions of the cochinita (tacos with Mayan-style braised pork, macerated onion and habanero) but nothing’s going to be like the stuff that happens in Mérida. It’s a dish from Mérida, but it’s really popular in Mexico City, that’s why I put it in.
Trucha (garlic-fried trout, Mayan cabbage, pico de gallo). This is the way fish is eaten in the Gulf of Mexico. Traditionally, there’s no deep water fish in Mexico, because there was no equipment, so everything is near the shore. So you never see things like bottom feeders or tuna. Trout works perfectly because it’s a small fish, thin. Usually in Mexico, you get the whole fish and they deep-fry the whole fish for you and then they give you a bag of mayo, a bag of pico de gallo, and some limes and your tortillas and you take the tortillas, a chunk of fish—take the bones out—and put the rest of it in there. That’s the way fish tacos are known by me.
Campechanos (salt-cured beef, longaniza, chicharron, smoked jalapeno salsa) comes from a particular taqueria in Mexico City that started in a little market that sat outside of the Plaza de Toros, the bullfighting ring, only Thursdays and Sundays. I’m sure I had my first taco there in 1968, which is the year I was born. I’m sure they fed me there! It’s one of those things I would wait for Sunday to be taken to those tacos. It’s still open. I think it’s a great, great taco.”
What's your favorite taco on the menu?
Al Pastor. It’s definitely a Mexico City thing. It came from Lebanese influence. There was Lebanese immigration in the 1800s and early 1900s. That’s definitely my top favorite. And we do it straight from the spit.
How did you decide on the dishes?
I decided on these dishes because these are the dishes I had growing up and I love and admire them. I noticed whenever Mexican food got translated to the U.S., it morphed into something different. So, I wanted to showcase very authentic food prepared the way I knew it.
What do you think is being overlooked in most of Mexican restaurants in Seattle?
What happens with a lot of Mexican restaurants—they’re all going to say ‘authentic Mexican’ because it’s something you almost have to say as a Mexican restaurant—is that they have to satisfy and already created perception of what Mexican food has to be. But you know, I think it’s going the right way. I think the more food becomes something that people have present and in their minds, Mexican food will arrive to the spot that it actually deserves in the American market, for sure.