Don't look now, Jose Andres, but another celebrity chef has quietly launched an assault on your turf, as if Richard Sandoval is challenging you to a game of Risk: D.C. Edition. With the recent opening of El Centro Georgetown and the forthcoming launch of Toro Toro downtown — and another Mexican concept yet to come — Sandoval may soon have more restaurants in Washington than the great Spaniard himself.
With 30 restaurants already under his belt, Sandoval swears his empire building isn't about conquering kingdoms (Andres's or anyone else's) or hoarding wealth.
"We do it for passion, not for money," says Sandoval, as he gives me a tour of the new El Centro in Georgetown. "We love finding new designers. That's what piques our interest. I mean, if we were just copying and pasting everything, who cares?"
El Centro Georgetown is a decent example. It's not a machine-stamped duplicate of the 14th Street NW original. Not only is the Georgetown location larger, but its menu will feature many new items, including braised cazuela dishes, skillet fajitas and more taco combinations (such as mahi mahi, chipotle barbecue and roasted octopus). There will even be a separate mezcal menu, for those who enjoy tequila's smoky cousin.
“We wanted to have something unique to this place,” Sandoval explains. "Every time we go in and do something new, we’re going to add a new element to it.”
The mention of tacos provides me an opportunity to raise my standard complaint: So many of the new-style taquerias in the District don't make their own tortillas, relying instead on masa rounds well past their prime. Will El Centro make its own tortillas now that it has two locations?
“No,” Sandoval says, cutting right to the chase.
"To get a consistent product, it’s challenging sometimes. You have to buy Maseca, the corn flour. You cannot buy the real masa. Some places you can, but here it’s hard,” he continues. "What I’m doing is I’m partnering up with a tortilla company in Atlanta called Ole ... I’m working with them to create the tortilla I want, so that it doesn’t have too many preservatives and it’s pliable."
The tortillas, Sandoval says, will be shipped to El Centro "every two days. You'll see the difference."
The conversation launches Sandoval into a mini-reverie about the tortilla station he installed at his latest Maya location in Beaver Creek, Colo. He says he hired a woman who spends her day at the station, making fresh tortillas on a hot comal in the middle of the restaurant. "All day long," Sandoval says, "the smell, the flavor. It makes a huge difference.”
Tortillas aside, Sandoval and his business partner, Ivan Iricanin, are pushing their beverage program even further at the Georgetown location, adding not only a mezcal bar but also infused tequilas. Iricanin says they infuse only silver tequilas, since the barrel-aged varieties tend to pick up vanilla flavors that can interfere with the infusion process. Among the flavors available: strawberry-basil, strawberry-chili, Granny Smith apple, cilantro, watermelon-cucumber and tamarind.
When I mention that it sounds like Sandoval could turn El Centro into a chain, he issues a small caution. "This concept only fits in a big city because of the late-night component and it’s a big space,” he says.
Another Mexican concept, the cantina-oriented Venga Venga, is a more viable candidate for expansion, he implies. In fact, Sandoval says, he's in negotiations to lease a space in the District for a Venga Venga, which already has locations in Southern California and Colorado. "It's not as big as this," Sandoval says, comparing the cantina concept to El Centro. "It's more like a neighborhood restaurant."
The mere mention of Venga Venga gets Sandoval riffing on Toro Toro, his pan-Latin steakhouse opening this fall on I Street NW. First launched in Dubai, Toro Toro is sort of a Brazilian steakhouse for people who don't really want all that much meat.
"We designed a menu where it’s all small plates," Sandoval says. "So you have about 30, 35 small plates to choose from: seviches, tiradito, arepas, empanadas, a lot of different small dishes from all over South American." Meats will be available, of course, but gauchos will slice skewers of lamb, chicken, ribeye and New York strip onto a skillet in the middle of the table, for all to share.
“A lot of times when I go to a steakhouse, I don’t want to eat a full steak, but I want a small piece of meat," Sandoval says. "Women, a lot of times, don’t go to a steakhouse because, believe it or not, they don’t want to eat a heavy piece of steak ... This way, it opens it up for women.”
Not that Sandoval is expecting Latin-style steakhouses to overtake the kind of meat-centric palaces that have practically defined D.C. dining to those who live far, far outside the Beltway. Sandoval recalls all the hype that used to surround Peruvian food.
"For the last 15 years, I’ve been hearing that Peruvian is the next big thing, but it never gets there," Sandoval, noting that Peruvian celebrity chef Gaston Acurio closed his lone New York City outpost, La Mar.
Sandoval was critical of Acurio's hands-off approach in dealing with his NYC restaurant. "You cannot go to NYC and open a restaurant and show up the day before and then leave the day after," Sandoval says. "You’re a famous chef, and you’re well known for your food. You got to spend at least three or four weeks [at the restaurant]...He didn’t do that."
But part of the problem with Peruvian food, Sandoval and Iricanin note, is that Americans still are not clear what defines it, unlike, say, Mexican, which is the cuisine closest to Sandoval's heart. “I guarantee you, if you went down on the street and asked 10 people, ‘Do you know Peruvian cuisine?’, they will say yes," Sandoval says. "And you’ll say, ‘What is Peruvian food?’ They will only know seviche and Peruvian chicken. But that’s it.”
“I don’t know if they have done a good job of marketing or exposing people to it,” he adds.
Speaking of early exits, I teased Sandoval about his brief appearance on "Top Chef Masters," in which he was given the boot on the second episode, the victim of his sous chef who couldn't prep ingredients fast enough. I asked Sandoval if he fired his sous chef as a result.
“He’s fired!” Sandoval says, seemingly serious as a heart attack.
Really, you fired him?
“No,” Sandoval says before releasing peals of laughter.
"No, actually he’s my corporate chef. He’s not even my sous chef," Sandoval continues. "The problem is, I should have taken a sous chef. Our corporate chef is opening restaurants, and he’s organizing and looking at financials. The last time he prepped was probably 10 years ago. If we would have known what they were going to do, I probably would have taken someone else, because he was freaking out.”
His corporate chef was freaking out so much that he seriously cut his finger during the competition. Sandoval says his employee had to visit the hospital the night of the taping.
“I think he was so nervous and anxious. His blood pressure went down," Sandoval says. "If you go in knowing it’s a game, then you don’t care. But when you see David Burke and you see [Bryan] Voltaggio and you see Michelin-starred chefs, it’s not a game."
"What’s this guy going to do? Put smoke through his eyes and through his nose?" Sandoval adds. "I’ve got to come up with something better than that! So you’re mind starts flowing. You got to stick with what you do and just play the game. Have fun at it, and you’ll do very well.”
So does Sandoval have his money on any one chef in the competition?
"I've been impressed with [Sang] Yoon," he says. "I would have bet money on him."