It's a story that's one for the ages.
After decades in the restaurant business, he as a chef trained in French cuisine, she as a manager, Cristian and Karen de Leon struck out on their own last year and opened El Sazon Tacos & More inside an Eagan BP gas station. It didn't take long before the kitchen with the sprawling Mexican menu gained a following, both for the quality of the food and the novelty of being located in a convenience store.
The de Leons embraced their restaurant home, holding occasional Night at the Gas Station tasting dinners between the racks of chips and beverage coolers. They were a hit, and cemented the couple's reputation as up-and-coming restaurateurs.
Fast-forward 18 months, and El Sazon Tacos & More has a new sibling, El Sazon Cocina & Tragos. The south Minneapolis restaurant opened in mid-October, giving Cristian a proper kitchen and the freedom to create food outside of a to-go container.
But they haven't forgotten their roots — the Eagan location is staying open — they've just grown from them. In describing the dishes at Cocina & Tragos, our server said: "It's just like what we serve at the gas station, but even better."
Location: 5309 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-315-5383, elsazonmn.com. Open Tue.-Thu. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
The vibe: Bright, lively and comfortable. Located on the corner of 53rd and Lyndale, in the former El Jefe, the space is small but mighty, with an open kitchen, a bar with a handful of seats, a larger communal high-top and more than a dozen tables. Seats toward the front of the restaurant can get chilly as the door opens, but there are plenty of "protected" tables. The service, however, is warm and friendly — and very helpful when navigating the menu, explaining dishes in detail. Noise-wise, we could easily carry on a conversation, even when the restaurant is full.
The food: The goal of El Sazon 2.0 is to serve traditional family recipes from chef Cristian de Leon's Latin American heritage, but with an elevated twist. And he does. Much care is taken with the presentation, with elegant details and edible flowers spiffing up everything from guacamole and bone marrow salsa to enchiladas and birria.
The dinner menu is divided into starters ($7-$18), tacos and more ($6-$14), mains ($17-$35) and desserts ($8-$10).
It's hard to step into a Mexican restaurant without ordering chips and salsa; choose from a flight of three or six salsas. Other starters include fresh guacamole on top of seasonal salsa (it was a pepita salsa on our visit); tuetano, a grilled bone marrow salsa served with Nixta tortillas; and other favorites like shrimp ceviche, elote, mussels with housemade chorizo and queso fondue peppered with chorizo.
For the less-adventurous eaters, the tacos — choose from tempura shrimp, asada, chicharron and chicken al pastor — and burritos were flying out of the kitchen. El Sazon has gained a reputation for its birria, which de Leon has turned into a showpiece here. The birria tacos are served with a bone-in short rib atop quesadillas; just pull the meat off, scoop up the accompaniments, fill a tortilla and dip it in the consommé. Ditto the birria ramen — the meat is served bone-in.
Birria aside, meat lovers won't be disappointed. There's a grilled New York strip with potatoes (the most expensive entree at $35), a de Leon family favorite chicken milanesa with fideos, mole enchiladas with carnitas and slow-roasted pork with black beans and rice served with flour tortillas. On the lighter side, there's an almond- and pepita-crusted tilapia with poblano aioli, rice and salad, and a cauliflower tinga served with tostadas.
Lunch takes a more casual approach, with mulitas, quesadillas, tortas, birria pizza and a burger — all familiar fare if you've dined at the Eagan location — standing in for the higher-end mains alongside the tacos.
Weekend brunch puts a spin on breakfast classics: a breakfast sandwich with house-made chicharron and eggs, carnitas hash, birria-quiles, chicken and churros, benedictos and concha French toast.
Dessert is not overlooked. Churros are served both with dulce de leche and a mug of chocolate abuelita (with a generous whipped cream topping), concha bread pudding and a red wine-poached apple, which almost is too pretty to eat.
The drinks: El Sazon is still awaiting approval for its liquor license, but mixologist Zoilo Ruacho is in full planning mode and has a tight roster of mocktails ($7) waiting for their high-octane spotlight. (They hold up just fine without spirits.) Among them: the Mazapan Spiced Atole, a tea with mazapan, cloves, cinnamon and masa (again with a generous topping of whipped cream), the spicy-sweet Chapulin Colorado, with sparkling passion fruit, roasted pineapple juice, and a pineapple-tajin paleta that melts as you sip. There's also a pepita horchata and a selection of Mexican sodas.
Parking: Street parking is readily available and there's a parking lot in back, too. The lot in front of the building is reserved for takeout customers.