Sergio Romo La Sandía Cantina 8340 Northfield Boulevard 303-373-9100 richardsandoval.com/lasandiacantina
This is part one of my interview with Sergio Romo, exec chef of La Sandia; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Sergio Romo started his cooking career at the wee age of six, working at his father's bakery, where he perfected the balancing act of carrying heavy trays and then hawking bread on the streets of Jalisco, Mexico. And when he wasn't flexing his muscles on the pavement, he got a workout at home, cooking alongside his parents -- and seven brothers and sisters. "My mom is an outstanding cook, and I remember helping her make tamales -- the most amazing tamales -- when I was really young," says Romo, today the executive chef at La Sandía, a contemporary Mexican restaurant in Northfield at Stapleton.
"I really wanted to be a baker like my dad, but I learned pretty early on that I was a better cook than a baker, so I turned my focus to cooking," recalls Romo, who moved to Los Angeles when he was sixteen. "The economics in Mexico weren't particularly good, and I had aunts and uncles living in L.A. and thought that there would be better opportunities for me to make a career for myself." And for nine years, he cooked at the same restaurant, a fast-casual taco joint that reminded him of his youth. "I was cooking Mexican food like they do in Mexico, which was what I wanted to do -- but I learned so much more, like how to really run a kitchen and manage people," he says. And that gave him the confidence to spread his wings.
"I'd moved up as high as I could, and there really wasn't anywhere else for me to go, so I started researching other Mexican restaurants, especially Mexican restaurants that were a little bit fancier than where I was cooking," remembers Romo. Richard Sandoval, who owns a multitude of restaurants around the world, was opening La Sandía in Santa Monica, and while Romo didn't have a clue about Sandoval's global restaurant domination, he recognized that La Sandía wasn't your average taco hut. "I could tell right away that it was different -- way more contemporary -- and once I got the job, I also realized that this was a big, big company that could potentially provide me with a lot of amazing opportunities," says Romo, who was hired as a line cook and quickly promoted to sous chef. "I was fast, level-headed, and I did things right, and Richard took notice."
A year later, in 2011, Sandoval offered Romo the sous-chef job in Denver, and while Romo admits it was a "trial period," he definitely passed: "It was a test to see if I could eventually make it as a head chef, and to see if I could retain the integrity of the food and satisfy guests -- and I did all of those things." His reward? In early 2012, Romo was promoted to executive chef.
"This is a place where I can do real Mexican food and use a lot of spices and chiles, just like at home, and I feel so lucky that I get to do this every day," says Romo, who in the following interview dispels the myths of Mexican food, begs servers to up their game, and explains why the molcajete always bests the blender.
How do you describe your food? I call it innovative Mexican cuisine that's creative, fresh, and incorporates Latin spices with traditional American flavors.
Ten words to describe you: Tenacious, creative, responsible, ambitious, adaptable, driven, explorative, dreamer, positive and honest.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I'm pretty obsessed with chile de árbol peppers, which are a key ingredient in much of my cooking, mostly because they provide the perfect amount of spice and flavor. Onions are also fantastic, but they need to be used in moderation, because they can be really overpowering.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? My molcajete, Mexico's version of the mortar and pestle. It isn't anything fancy, but you can use it to do pretty much anything. I use it for preparing guacamole and salsa, and for grinding spices. The rough surface grinds everything and also seasons the food in much the same way as a cast-iron skillet. Little known fact: Using a molcajete adds so much more flavor and texture than a food processor or blender.
Favorite dish on your menu: I love our steak, chicken and veggie fajitas -- they're all awesome. We just launched a new "Latin Light" menu with fajitas made with sautéed shrimp, onions and peppers. The dish is less than 500 calories, but you'd never know it.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Colorado-grown corn, when it's in season, is amazing. It adds a lot of sweetness, texture and depth to a dish. For the freshest product, I like getting corn from a local farmers' market whenever I can.
One ingredient that you won't touch: Pasteurized processed cheese. It's a staple in some Mexican restaurants, but you won't find it in mine. I'm not saying it doesn't have its place on ballpark nachos, but you won't find it at La Sandía.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: More street food. A lot of the best food in Mexico is found on the street, and it's a fun, quick, easy and cheap way to make new discoveries. It doesn't matter what you're in the mood for -- you can always find whatever you're craving from one of the vendors, and I'd love to see more street vendors here in Denver. There's no such thing as too many.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: A reduction in the number of "comfort food" dishes on menus, specifically super-unhealthy food that's deep-fried or smothered with layers of cheese and cream-based sauces. People think of Mexican food as heavy and laden with calories, but that's the Americanized version. Real Mexican food uses lots of fish and lean proteins, vegetables and salsas.
One food you detest: I don't like olives or duck. Put the two together and I'm out completely. The texture and flavor of both just aren't appealing to me.
One food you can't live without: Steak, or carne asada. Steak is always delicious, but the seasoning I use on my carne asada makes it even better.
Biggest menu bomb: When I was baking, I once tried to make cheese bread by mixing large chunks of cheese into the dough, but I think I used the wrong kind of cheese, because once it baked, all that was left with this huge, dense pile of hard dough with a block of cheese inside. It was a great idea in theory, and I'm sure many others have perfected it, but that one didn't work out at all.
Weirdest customer request: A guest once asked us to mix lime juice and cream to make a sauce -- apparently oblivious to the fact that when you do that, it curdles and doesn't look remotely appetizing. I was sure she wanted something else and just explained it wrong, but lo and behold, when the server brought it to the table, the guest said that it was exactly what she wanted.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Frog's legs. I didn't grow up eating a lot of French food, so this was definitely something new for me. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I actually really enjoyed them. I'll keep on trying new things; it's what makes cooking and eating such a fun experience.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: My mom is an excellent cook, and she always made the most amazing mole rojo tamales for special occasions when I was growing up in Mexico. Whenever I go home, she makes them for me, and they remind me of being a kid again.
Your five favorite Denver restaurants other than your own: I love the tongue tacos at Pinche; the flavor is amazing and transports me right back to Mexico. I don't really eat cheese, but I love a straight-up hamburger, and Elephant Bar makes a really good one. I go to Texas de Brazil quite a bit -- it's really close to the Northfield La Sandía -- because the meat is cooked perfectly every time, and I'm also a big fan of Zengo, especially the sushi, which is absolutely delicious. I specifically love the volcano roll -- no one else does it as well as they do. I also dig Lola for its fresh seafood and great Mexican flavors, plus I just really like the overall vibe of the place.
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If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? In other parts of the world, everyone who works in restaurants is passionate about the cuisine and the guest experience, but here I find that many of the people working the front of the house aren't as attentive as they could be -- that they're only there for no other reason than it's just a job. There are times when I go out to eat in Denver and feel like I'm just a number. I want to feel like the servers are as enthusiastic as the kitchen staff, and I want to believe I'm getting a dining "experience" and not just a check.