You won’t find salt or pepper on any of V’s tables.
Venietia Santana, owner of new downtown restaurant V’s Cellar Door, has blended the Mexican flavors of her ex-mother-in-law’s original recipes with traditional Korean barbecue to create a menu all her own. And it’s one that doesn’t need much help to grab the tastebuds, she said.
“You don’t need salt and pepper; the flavors are all in the food,” Santana said. She’ll only bring out the shakers on request. “Once you take a bite, you can make that decision.”
V’s opened two weeks ago in the cozy space that had been occupied for 37 years by Olivia’s de Mexico, 222 Seward St. V’s specializes in Mexican-Korean fusion, an unusual combination that’s “easier to taste and harder to hear,” she said. Santana hopes the meshing of flavors — appearing in menu items like tofu and Korean barbecue tacos and kimchi quesadillas — will push her brand of international food ahead of the pack.
Santana was born to Sicilian and Irish parents, and her former husband is Mexican. The fusion menu is a nod to Santana being “a mix myself,” she said.
“I wanted to use a mix of flavors, and Korean is so popular down south,” Santana said. “I wanted to do Mexican differently.”
The Mexican side of Santana’s food comes straight from her ex-mother-in-law, who lived in Mexico City. She taught Santana much of what she knows, “straight down to making the homemade flan,” Santana said. She said it took about four or five months to get the recipes down pat and ready to serve to customers. Everything V’s serves is house-made, Santana said, including the guacamole and marinades.
V’s Cellar Door is an endeavor about two years in the making, she said. Santana served grinders from a food truck in the Valley for a few months last year but decided she wanted a more permanent place from which to feed the masses. After 20 years of working in the food industry, she knew she wanted an eatery of her own.
“I didn’t want a ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ at 60,” she said.
So she decided to buy Olivia Castaneda’s restaurant, which Castaneda had been trying to sell for two years. Although Castaneda said it was time to pass the torch — she has been struggling with health problems — she said she feels “kind of sad” to let it go.
For 37 years, Castaneda “worked in the restaurant every single day, all day long,” she said. “My life was the business and my children.”
A few of Castaneda’s tried and true dishes will stay on V’s menu.
“She had a big, loyal customer base so we wanted to leave a little of Olivia’s here,” Santana said.
Castaneda said she has faith Santana will be successful in carrying on her legacy.
“I know she knows what she’s doing,” Castaneda said. “I know she’s going to be a good businessperson.”
Santana said despite all her time spent in kitchens, the business side of the operation is what she’s most passionate about.
“I love cooking food, but I’m more in love with the business side,” she said. “I want this to be not just a place to have food, but a good business.”
Santana did some redecorating in the restaurant, modernizing it with a zesty, orange accent wall. The lighting is soft and ambient. Jazz plays softly in the background.
“I wanted it to be when you walked in you felt, ‘Wow, I could stay here for a couple hours,’” Santana said.
And people have been, she said. Every night for the past two weeks, the restaurant has been slammed for lunch and dinner, Santana said.
“There’s not a night I haven’t been running my butt off,” waitress Krista Williams said.
Santana said that, more than anything, she’s been “so impressed” with her customers’ willingness to try food they’ve never heard of before, like the fusion dog: a hot dog heaped with slaw, kimchi, relish and V’s house sauce.
“Some of the words they can’t even pronounce,” Santana said. “But they’re taking risks.”
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at email@example.com.