On a sunny, frigid day in November 2014, panic gripped the foodies of Seattle. Paseo closed its pink glass doors—forever. The darling Caribbean grill was legendary for its long lines of patiently waiting customers wound around the block like a stream of secret sauce from one of its legendary sandwiches. There was no warning. One day the doors were just locked, with a short note on the door thanking the customers who wandered around the shop, shellshocked.
Before the restaurant’s demise, it had been the target of rapturous praise from all corners. As our own Kelton Sears wrote earlier that year after Yelp christened Paseo (4225 Fremont Ave. N, 545-7440) the second best place to eat in America, “Many people worship the slow-roasted pork morsels the restaurant piles on their sandwiches.” When news broke that the hallowed sandwich shop was done, our headline read “This Can’t Be Happening!”
Yet the public quickly learned that the closing of Paseo was more than simply a story of a good shop gone bankrupt. Shortly before the bankruptcy, workers had filed a lawsuit against owner Lorenzo Lorenzo for wage theft. As those details emerged, it was an open question whether Seattle would welcome Paseo back even if it could.
An open question, yes, but a dumb one too.
When Ryan Santwire, local entrepreneur, heard that Paseo had closed for good, one thought dominated his mind: “There’s no way I can never have that sandwich again.”
Ah, that sandwich. Caribbean roasted pork tucked into a savory, damp bedding of bread, with heat-wilted lettuce, soft-cooked onions, and slices of jalapeño. The bulky result is wrapped in two layers of wax paper, which the sandwich instantly soaks with its juices.
Unwilling to say goodbye, Santwire paid $91,000 for the Paseo name, making the deal just a month after the bankruptcy was announced. The money did not get him the sandwich recipes, so he also hired some former employees and got to work. They set about reverse-engineering the signature sauces that reduce so many food critics to slobbering, sobbing messes. Eater reports the sandwich engineering was done in secret at RockCreek, across the street from Paseo’s Fremont location. Santwire is coy about how this actually went down. “Let’s just say that there was marinate and different things that were still available to me,” he says, in addition to the employees.
“Our goal was to keep Paseo as Paseo was… . How do you take that kind of place out of a city and expect it not to leave a hole?” Santwire says. “We didn’t want to disrupt the apple cart at all. We just wanted to reopen it.”
In January 2015, less than a month after he bought the Paseo name, the Fremont location was back open. It’s been very well-received. Paseo is now listed as the third best face-stuffing site in America on Yelp. Sure, not second, but still pretty good. Local food critics are split as to whether its reincarnation surpasses its preincarnation. But according to our readers, it’s more or less just as good.
Last week a second location inside an old diner in SoDo opened, and Santwire hints that more may be on their way. “There could be some surprises coming,” he says slyly. A few have already shown up. Paseo now offers booze, including sangria, and Santwire says some gluten-free options are in the works—plus a food-finding mission to Cuba in the not-too-distant future. “It’s always difficult,” Santwire says, to walk the fine line between being flexible enough to accommodate different palates while still retaining Paseo’s unique essence. “One person’s perfect sandwich might be another person’s spicy nightmare.” They want to offer something for everyone, but “we don’t want our menu to look like an Encyclopedia Britannica.”
We put the million-dollar question to Santwire: What is it about Paseo that keeps it on top, not only year after year but now incarnation after incarnation? His answer is simple: quality. “We taste through our food every single day,” he says, in their quest for the best. And that’s what brings the salivating masses back to what many consider Seattle’s best sandwich shop: “The love of the flavor, the love of the experience—I mean, it’s tasty,” Santwire says. “Bottom line, it’s a really good chunk of flavors and food.”
Read about the rest of the Best of Seattle Reader Poll winners here. If you didn’t get a chance to vote this go-round, make sure your voice is heard next year. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will let you know when nominations open for BoS 2017.