El Santo brings new vibe, optimism to Columbia Street

Alejandro Diaz is so committed to creating a new vibe on Columbia Street, he hired a crane to help install a 1000-pound tortilla maker in his new restaurant, El Santo.

He could have just imported tortillas or sourced them from a supplier, said Diaz, but it’s details like freshly-made tortillas that will set his new venture apart, and solidify New Westminster’s growing reputation in foodie circles.

The machine, which he imported from Mexico, is a big, expensive commitment and the stakes are high.

El Santo is the first tenant to open in the commercial ground floor of Robert Fung’s gleaming new condo tower that rises 20 stories above the historic facades of the historic Trapp and Holbrook blocks. The Edwardian structures were built in the late 1800s, then rebuilt after the great fire of 1898 destroyed much of the city’s original downtown.

The Trapp Block was once a department store. The Holbrook was a hotel and saloon. Both fell on tough times when the lustre left the city’s Golden Mile, as Columbia Street was once known in its heyday.

Fung’s Salient Group acquired the structures in 2005 then bided its time until New West was ready for a project to spark its historic downtown much as other Salient projects have transformed Vancouver’s old Gastown district from tacky tourist haunt to a chic urban destination for new restaurants, bistros and boutiques.

“Our strongest takeaway from our work in the Vancouver historic districts is that the strength of the area will come from the passion and commitment of the business owners that we work with,” said Fung. “This invariably leads us to favouring independent local business owners that have a passion and understanding for the area.”

That passion is percolating, said Kendra Johnston, of the city’s Downtown Business Improvement Association.

“It’s sort of feeding into the energy that is already happening in Downtown New West,” said Johnston.

Much of that heat is coming from the kitchens of new restaurants like Wild Rice, ReUp BBQ and The Hub that have made the giant leap from their familiar environs in Vancouver to find a new foothold in the province’s oldest city.

Johnston said new residents, many of them young professionals and young families moving into new developments going up Downtown to escape the real estate frenzy of Vancouver, are driving the appetite for new restaurants.

“They’re not looking for the regular chains,” said Johnston. “They want unique and interesting food and beverage options.”

Which is exactly what Diaz wants to provide at El Santo.

A native of Mexico who worked in the service industry for 17 years, 11 of them at major hotels, Diaz is hoping to educate diners about Mexican cuisine beyond burritos, wrapped in a stylish, cosmopolitan experience.

“We want to do something a little different, something colourful with a contemporary Mexican influence,” said Diaz, 43.

To develop his menu, Diaz and his chef, Shane King, travelled to Mexico City to sample some of the city’s most modern, sophisticated restaurants. Not just the food, but also how it’s plated, how the restaurant is presented.

“Mexican food isn’t just tacos and enchiladas,” said Diaz.

The contemporary experience extends to the bar, where the tequila isn’t just for shots.

In fact, the potent spirit that is distilled from the blue agave plant is meant to be sipped slowly, much like a fine wine, said Diaz. Tequilas can complement a meal and each other.

So he’s stocked 45 varieties, along with six or seven mescals, many of them rarely found in the Lower Mainland. A perch on the high, grey cloth stools along the polished solid wood bar will be like admission to Tequila U.

“Our goal is to try to teach people about tequila,” said Diaz. “A good tequila is like scotch.”

El Santo also breaks free of the traditional trappings of a Mexican restaurant, like sombreros and marimbas mounted on the walls.

The sleek interior was designed by Vancouver architect PJ Mallen. Polished concrete floors are accented by simple, modern furnishings and fixtures in hues of brown and lime.

Many of the materials were sourced locally. The bar and tabletops were created by Tanex Industries on Auckland Street. The restaurant’s signage was designed by Seen Signs in Sapperton, whose work also announces other local favourites like Brick & Mortar. It’s beer menu includes taps from Steel & Oak.

Keeping it local, being invested in the community, is a big part of the restaurant’s recipe for success, said Diaz, who also lives in New West.

“It’s good to know the neighbours, and for the neighbours to know us,” he said. “The support goes both ways.”

That connectedness will also help El Santo and other businesses that have embraced their New West character to draw visitors from beyond the city’s borders, said Johnston.

“Local roots are super important to build community,” she said. “It’s vital to bringing people in.”

And to building the kind of Downtown Fung and Diaz hope El Santo will help spark.

“We believe that Trapp + Holbrook is a model for the evolution of Downtown New Westminster,” said Fung.

“I hope there will be more restaurants,” he said. “I don’t see it as competition. People will come here today and next time they will go to another place. We would like to be a destination.”

El Santo is located at 680 Columbia St. It officially opens for dinner today, Friday, December 11. Lunch service will follow in the next couple of weeks.