Chef Fernando Olea had a soft reopening in mind for Sazón, the New World cuisine restaurant on Shelby Street that was closed for seven months after a Mother’s Day fire.
“But the only ‘soft’ day was Dec. 12, the day we reopened,” said Olea. “We’ve been sold out every day since then.”
Helping to drive the restaurant’s bookings is its rating as the top restaurant in Santa Fe on the website TripAdvisor.
Olea said he doesn’t look at reviews, but has heard from his employees and customers about his restaurant’s TripAdvisor ranking, which stood at No. 1 on Jan. 2 and has sometimes dipped to No. 2 since its reopening.
The TripAdvisor kudos is just the latest honor for Sazón, which is a AAA Four Diamond winner, and Olea, its chef and co-owner along with Lawrence Becerra. Olea was recently named Restaurateur of the Year by the New Mexico Restaurant Association.
Olea said he heard about the fire at about 9:30 a.m. on May 12 in a call from the general manager of the nearby Inn of the Governors hotel, who could see smoke pouring out from the second floor.
The damage was largely confined to the second-floor office, Olea said, but the restaurant had to make improvements to come into compliance with city construction codes in order to reopen.
Sazón’s insurance allowed Olea to collect a paycheck and cover the salaries of the restaurant’s roughly 30 employees during the seven months it was closed, he said.
“What we are most proud of is that we were able to pay our entire staff for the full seven months that we were closed,” he said. “We just felt it was the right thing to do.”
As for the chef, he said he helped supervise the renovations, but mostly he “was going crazy” while the eatery was shuttered.
Olea, a Mexico City native who has been in Santa Fe for 28 years, opened Sazón in September 2015. Prior to that, he ran Epazote on Agua Fria across from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church for 12 years. Before that, it was Bert’s La Taqueria at St. Michael’s Drive and Llano Street.
Olea describes the menu at Sazón as “New World cuisine” and said his signature dish is sopa de Amor, or love soup. A sweet and savory concoction, the soup is a cream of poblano soup with a lump of blue crab that features Amaretto foam and is sprinkled with chocolate.
Among the favorites cited by commenters on TripAdvisor are yellowtail crudo, the pepper-encrusted beef entree, salmon and flautitas. The Degustacíon tasting menu is also a crowd pleaser.
In addition to awards for its food, Sazón has won acclaim for its wine list, including “The Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator magazine in August. The wine list has an extensive selection of Baja wines from the Valle de Guadalupe, which Forbes magazine has dubbed the Napa Valley of Mexico.
Tru Miller, owner of the label Adobe Guadalupe and a pioneer of Baja wines, invited Olea to cook at her August charity event to benefit Baja’s Fiestas de la Vendimia. It was the first time a chef from the U.S. was chosen to participate in the event, according to a spokeswoman for Sazón.
Olea said he was inspired to open his restaurant after being disappointed in eateries in cities across the U.S. that friends took him to in search of authentic Mexican cuisine.
Olea said one of the best things about the reopening of Sazon was that it laid to rest the rumor that the restaurant, which seats 100 in the main dining area and 30 at the bar, was closed for good. “People love to gossip,” noted Olea.
Many of the reservations at Sazón are coming from online services, such as OpenTable, which allow diners to book far in advance. Olea said the restaurant’s patrons are a mix of tourists and locals.
“It’s amazing how supportive people have been. We received much love and many good wishes during the time that we were closed and now that we’ve reopened,” he said.