You might’ve heard that El Santo in New West tied for Gold with La Mezcaleria for Best Latin in this year’s Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards. We came in with a certain level of expectation, perhaps a more modern, tweaked, elevated take on Mexican cuisine. But we came away confused, disappointed, and frankly stunned with the generally bland, one-note, and at times off-balance flavours.
I’m a big supporter of the emerging New West food and beer scene, I really wanted to like El Santo. They’ve done beer pairing dinners with Steel & Oak, and support causes like Canucks Autism Network. But we were here to simply experience the food, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t tell it to you straight.
View of the bar.
View of the front.
View of the back. Washrooms in the back, to the right. There’s a private table tucked away in the back left.
Happy hours are the perfect opportunity for restaurants to tease, entice, and win over customers so they come for full dinners.
Their well-maintained website has all their menus.
They also do seasonal features.
Since I was driving, I didn’t partake. But it looks like they only have one tap? And the typical Mexican lagers. Their cocktail program may be well-regarded, but their beer program is simply what people know and nothing more.
I get the horchata whenever I see it on menus. We were a little disappointed to see that it’s blended with almond milk. I prefer rice only.
Horchata ($6) comes with a cinnamon stick that Wicca joked that she wanted to take home to cook with. The horchata helps cut the heat with it’s milkiness and sweetness, although nothing we ordered was even mildly spicy. This tasted a touch watered-down.
Housemade Red Sangria ($9) was weak on the wine flavour and tasted like it had 7-Up in it.
Trio of Salsas ($5) with ancho-dusted housemade tortilla chips. The salsas were (L-R): tomatillo and guajillo, salsa verde, and salsa roja. The tomatillo salsa was surprisingly one-note with no real depth or complexity. The verde had an interesting herby zingy twang to it that I enjoyed but Wicca wasn’t a fan of. Our favourite was the roja, the most balanced and flavourful of the three.
The tortilla chips were thin, crispy, and tasted fresh. Seasoning on the chips though was uneven, with some chips being almost unbearably salty. Some chips had an oily sheen. I could use more ancho dust on the chips. But I liked the thinness of them.
Chiles Padrón ($7) – blistered peppers, lime, sea salt, and sesame seeds. No issues with this dish. It’s great happy hour drinking food. As usual with this type of dish, some peppers had no heat while others hit about a mild/medium level heat. It’s like Russian roulette. Charred lime wedge is a nice touch.
El Santo Huevo ($5) is like their take on scotch eggs. Masa-battered soft boiled egg, housemade chorizo, and habanero apple jam. The batter was reminiscent of fish and chip batter that’s been well-fried, creating a crunchy exterior — a good thing. But this dish was let down by the underseasoned chorizo layer. This dish really needed that sauce to save it. The sauce was a bit like Thai sweet chili sauce, and didn’t have much heat to it even though it’s habanero. I was really surprised at how underseasoned the egg was. And I’ve had my share of meat-wrapped eggs.
Rajas Con Crema ($8). Poblano and red bell peppers, grilled pineapple, roasted garlic, corn, and crema, served with fresh tortillas.
Could not taste the grilled pineapple in this dish at all. Tasted like a creamier creamed corn, basically. That pile of long strands of green onion was hard to disentangle. The cast iron pan, while cute, was really shallow, making it hard to scoop for fear of spilling the corn over the sides.
I do love the tortilla warming pocket though.
The housemade tortillas are impressively thin, strong, and pliable. Their tortilla game here is strong.
As a dish though, one of us thought it was comforting (mostly because of the corn), but I felt that it wasn’t a well-thought-out dish presentation-wise, with flavours that were too mild and unexciting.
Torta of the Day ($7) was carne asada (skirt steak). That bun’s the crustiest one I’ve had with a torta. It worked well enough, though. At $7 it’s very reasonably priced for the quality of meat inside.
The somewhat generous meat, cooked medium-rare, was the highlight. It had some good flavour and char (although a few bites veered too close to charcoal). As is typical with tortas nowadays, there was only a smidge of avocado. I miss the days of the original Duffins on Main where you’d get enough avocado to actually taste. Avocados are expensive, yes, but if you’re putting a tiny bit in a sandwich that big, you might as well not put any in. Overall, not a great, craveable torta.
So after those five happy hour dishes, we tried three dishes off their dinner menu. (You can’t say we didn’t try a representative sample of their food.)
Cachete Tacos ($9 for two, $13.50 for three) – braised beef cheek, crispy shallots & jalapeños, and salsa roja. Very generous amount of filling! Seasoning was finally a bit more amped up in this dish, but still very one-note, lacking in brightness, acidity, freshness, more texture, something. Even the salsa didn’t really help. The crispy fried jalapeños were hard, bland, and tasteless.
I know I sound like a supreme, righteous asshole for nitpicking about this folded-over tortilla, but details count — details that I saw were also symptomatic of greater problems: attention to seasoning, flavours, and balance.
Chile Relleno ($14) came recommended by our server. Poblano pepper, Oaxaca cheese, green rice, and salsa ranchera.
Rice and cheese inside. This was the best dish we tried that night, but this is out of a generally mediocre experience. A “good, but” dish, the “but” part being the consistent theme of underseasoned, one-note dishes that lacked vibrancy, depth, and complexity of flavour. I do not understand why this is the case. I’d love to talk to some of those Vanmag judges.
Chilaquiles ($18). Crispy Fraser Valley pork belly, tamarind chipotle glaze, salsa verde, Cotija cheese, and tortilla chips. Unfortunately, this dish had to measure up against nostalgic first experiences with humble, comforting chilaquiles. This dish was the worst out of everything we tried that night. A sour and salty unbalanced mess of a dish.
The pork belly slices tasted like they were deep fried until crunchy, then softened in the too-sour tamarind chipotle sauce. Paired with the salty tortilla chips, it’s not a great eating experience.
I can’t believe that out of eight dishes, I can’t find one that I’d recommend to anyone.
The complimentary marshmallows with hibiscus and chile were a nice finishing touch.
Sigh. The most stunning (in a bad way) and dumbfounding dining experience of the year so far.
Side note about the service: our server seemed to operate in her own foggy haze. Not very personable or friendly, which while not a dealbreaker, definitely brought my confidence in the place down. She admitted that she didn’t have any vested interest in Mexican cuisine, and lacked interest or enthusiasm about the menu. Every other server except for our own was much friendlier and welcoming, in particular the bar staff who brought our drinks. Our torta was still missing 30 minutes after we ordered it, and it wasn’t until we flagged down another server that it was taken care of. Then to cap it off, our server punched in the wrong table when we paid our bill. Our credit card already went through, so we had to trust that the server was calculating correctly when she tried to fix it using the calculator on her cell phone. I wasn’t about to whip out my own phone to double-check her work, but I sorta wanted to.
Another side note, not directed to anyone personally: I hate it when servers suddenly act all friendly at the end of the meal when it comes time to pay and consider how much to tip. Even though it might not be a conscious ploy, it feels like one.
In perspective: two dishes at Tacofino Tacobar in Gastown came to mind when I was writing this review. The Chicharones with Yucca, Crispy Pork Belly and Slaw ($12) and Oaxacan Corn Fritters with Chili Lime and Cotija ($6) — you can read my review here. These two dishes blow away anything we had at El Santo. Flavour, texture, freshness, vibrancy, respect to Mexican flavours, it’s all there. Even a humble $6 plate of corn fritters. I feel like I must undo this meal with a plate of those fritters.