With 35 years on Broadway, La Cocina Santiago celebrates, readies for change

(Image: Alex Garland for CHS)

(Image: Alex Garland for CHS)

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.

IMG_6530-2In 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.

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40 thoughts on “With 35 years on Broadway, La Cocina Santiago celebrates, readies for change

  1. No don’t change the menu! This is the only place to get good basic Mexican food and large blended margaritas!!

  2. I agree with Katie – don’t change a thing! It’s such a relief to go to a real place on Capitol Hill that doesn’t worry about being a scene. La Cucina is friendly and festive and unpretentious.

  3. Don’t change a thing! I don’t know who would complain about large portions of good affordable food. Stick to what works!

  4. Congratulations to Mr. Santiago! There aren’t many places on Broadway that have the longevity that La Cocina has, and it’s because it delivers tasty food at reasonable prices in a festive atmosphere. I too vote for “no changes”….why change a good, successful restaurant? There are many people who don’t care about the latest trends.

    • Everybody has his/her own opinion, and you may not prefer this type of food. But 35 yrs worth of people apparently disagree with you. Doesn’t make your taste any less valid, but plenty of people must think it isn’t crap. Just eat somewhere else.

  5. I absolutely love Mexican food but this place is insanely overpriced. The only change I want on the menu is lower prices! :)

  6. Chandler, what you want is a taco truck or Rancho Bravo-style fast food joint, or maybe you should just stick with Bimbo’s ala carte menu instead.

    Seriously, La Cocina’s prices are more than reasonable for a full-service sit down restaurant, particularly in comparison to chi-chi places like Poquito’s or Barrio. And while the food itself is pretty unpretentious, it’s decent & filling.

    I can understand Mr. Santiago’s concern regarding going head-to-head with the more upscale establishments springing up around him like so many mushrooms in a rain forest, but I also agree with others here who bemoan the trend toward whatever is fashionable at the moment over a tried-and-true formula that’s been successful for over 3 decades. Maybe he just needs to tweak a few things – like adding a higher-end cocktail menu to the basic margaritas & beers – but, I add my voice to the rest when I say, “basic is GOOD!”

  7. Been going to Cocina for 22 years. They all know me in there. It has been a great stable oasis in what is now a rapidly changing area.

    I’d be sad if they revised their menu too much to chase noob hipster dollars. Those folks really have Pike and Pine on a chokehold right now. It’s awesome to have some things stay the same, if there’s no reason to change I’d suggest strongly maybe not.

  8. Mr. Santiago, your restaurant is a classic, and I hope you don’t end up having to chase the fancy pants trends or craft cocktails. (I want to say don’t change a thing, but hey, everything changes!) The food at your place is high quality, classic Tex-Mex food and I’ve enjoyed eating there since 1996.

  9. Congratulations, Mr. Santiago! I echo a lot of comments here: please don’t change a thing! La Cocina serves delicious food at reasonable prices and has a delightfully relaxed atmosphere. Sometimes, you just want a giant burrito smothered in cheese and guac. Thanks for the great service. To the next 35 years!

  10. Please don’t change anything.
    Sometimes I just want a cheese enchilada, not a roasted pumpkin seed squash enchilada. And I want a red sangria, not some $14 special “punch”.
    Don’t fix what is not broken!

  11. I agree…don’t change a thing! I like the large portions; like getting two meals for the price of one (I frequently end up taking part of my meal home). A tip to diners; try the Top Shelf margaritas, they cost a little more, but they pack more of a punch. It’s the one place where I know I can get a good strong drink, probably because I’ve been a customer for many years.

  12. La Cocina (and the old La Puerta) are where I go when I want food that reminds me of my dad’s cooking. It’s not fancy, but it’s homestyle Mexican food that I’d hate for the Hill to lose.
    Congrats on 35 years! Here’s to many more fruitful years to come.

  13. Congrats Mr. Santiago and his friendly staff. I grew up on Cap Hill and actually used to ride my Big Wheel down Broadway back in the day. My parents used to take our family there for our birthdays where their friendly staff would a take a birthday photo of you wearing a Sombrero and then pinned the picture on their wall for all to see. Don’t change a thing! The buffet is one of the best around for reasonably priced Mexican food. Especially the fresh “Pollo Asado”!!! and fresh Guac!

    • I’ve never heard anyone who grew up on Capitol Hill refer to it as Cap Hill. That’s how you tell the “natives” from the new tech immigrants. Just sayin’ (agree with everything else you said and smile at the idea of a kid riding their big wheel down Broadway!)

    • Really? I was just limiting my charter allowance on the post. I am a born and raised “Hiller”. Attended Stevens and then St. Joe’s and still own a house on 20th and Aloha Ave E. I also founded the Capitol Hill Rowdies circa 2006 (soccer club). I bleed “Royal and Gold”. CH4LIFE!

  14. We love this restaurant! The people are like family. The food is delicious! My family and I love everything about La Cocina Santiago. Thank you for always making us feel welcome! You are the best in the business!

  15. Interesting. The fact it’s not trendy and lasted 35 years. Now it wants to become trendy? That makes me fear for their future. Trends come and go. Classic’s last for, well they last for 35+ years.

  16. We have been coming here for 12 years now, since I moved to the city. Out daughter loves to come here and put her picture on the wall. Its like she has grown up here, although she is only five. The Santiago family is extremely friendly and feel like they are a part of our small family.

    Can’t wait to celebrate on the 25th.

    Thank you for staying true to what you do!

  17. “Many diners now want smaller portions with prettier presentations, fancier cocktails and a slightly different flavor palette than he provides.”

    many diners are idiots.

  18. I’m a transplant from San Antonio, Texas, the world capitol of Tex-Mex food.

    I like this place. I can make a chalupa from the buffet.

    All he needs to do is open an all-night window with a limited menu of hand food that includes crispy tacos and cahalupas ala Taco Cabana restaurants in Texas.

  19. I really like this restaurant. You can actually get some healthy stuff from the buffet if you want it. Plus good stuff. I really like the chicken. I don’t think you need to change the place. Staff is really friendly.
    It’s a place I feel perfectly fine going by myself and I appreciate that.

  20. Having walked past the place for the four years I’ve lived on Capitol Hill, this article prompted me to visit for lunch yesterday. Delicious and simple “cocina burrito,” a margarita and I was a happy camper. Very clean, reasonable priced, and friendly. Keep up the good work! See you again soon.

  21. I used to live behind this place. It’s a go to for their brunch. Many memories there. Don’t change. Trust me on this.

  22. I was one of the employes four years ago
    Victor is the best person that I’ve met and now it
    has been more then 4 years and the service
    and the workers are still great!

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  24. The food there is ‘ok’ at best. Left there too many times saying ‘not again’.. If they need to change up there menu, please be for the better and please tell them not to stuff rice into everything as filler and have it as a side dish as well. Sorry, but just another ‘ok’ place on Broadway along with De-sucks up the street.

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