Victor R. Santiago has lived the American dream. He grew up in the small mountain town of Guachinango in the Jalisco state of Mexico. In 1986, he came to the United States, first picking apples near Lake Chelan, then waiting tables in Renton. By 1989, he was working at La Cocina Santiago. He’s now the owner of the restaurant, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary on Broadway.
“It’s been a nice ride all the way,” he said. “I love Seattle. I wouldn’t change Seattle for anything.”
In an industry known for slim profit margins where many businesses close within a few months of opening, Santiago notes one big key to his success.
“Just follow whatever the customers want,” he said. “Good service, fresh food. I do the basics.”
The restaurant was first opened by David Webster in Bremerton in the mid 1970s before moving to Broadway in 1980. Santiago started working there as a waiter, before working his way up to manager, manager then taking over ownership in 2001 when Webster retired and moved to Florida.
In his time, he has watched Broadway grow, literally, up, as taller buildings have begun crowding into the landscape for the past few years. Customers have also gotten a lot younger, he said, and he agrees with the prevailing sense that rents have gotten more expensive and the relative number of gay patrons has declined. In the 90s, he estimated close to 60% of his customers were gay, while now that number has flipped and is closer to 40%.
He said he was grateful for the chance to be in a place where he can get to know people with different lifestyles and different points of view. A place radically different from the small town where he grew up.
“That’s one of the biggest things I appreciate about being here — Capitol Hill,” he said.
Since he’s been in charge, he’s been able to bring many of his family members to work for him, including both of his parents, brothers, sisters, in-laws and nephews. Keeping it all in the family helps him ensure that it runs smoothly, and that the workers are more invested in seeing the business be successful.
“When I’m not here, I know the place is in good hands,” he said.
Beyond that, he says that he’s able to keep staff around for a long time. He said his newest server has been there for four years — a lifetime in the restaurant industry.
“Every time I hire someone, I say you are here to smile,” he said.
Santiago said he hasn’t made many changes since he’s taken over. The walls are a little brighter, but beyond that, the décor has remained the same. He added the lunch buffet in 1991, and remains one of the only Mexican food buffets in the area — certainly the only one on Capitol Hill.
“It was a hit from the first moment,” he said.
And he said he has added a few menu items, but likes to stick to what he called more traditional Mexican food — large portions of classic dishes like burritos and tacos, and drinks like margaritas and beer to wash it down.
All that may need to change in the coming years, however.
The restaurant’s layout, with multiple levels and a step or two between each is not what people are looking for anymore. And he also realizes that his menu may have to change.
“I’m afraid my style of food is coming to an end,” he said. “I know I have to change in order to keep up.”
Many diners now want smaller portions with prettier presentations, fancier cocktails and a slightly different flavor palette than he provides. He notes that now, some places even charge for the chips and salsa which he provides for free. He said he has considered doing the same, but knows his place would need to make the other sorts of changes first to justify the extra cost to patrons.
In the meantime, he is planning a celebration of La Cocina Santiago’s 35 years. On March 25, food will be half off all day, and he plans to have live Mexican music in the evening, plus traditional decorations like balloons and piñatas, he said. “And my good mood.”
La Cocina Santiago is located at 432 Broadway E.