The De Leon family finds success serving up flavorful tacos (and more) inside an Eagan gas station.
There’s something absolutely delightful about finding treasure in an unexpected place. So it’s not surprising that news of the delicious tacos served from a kiosk in an unassuming gas station has spread quickly throughout the Metro.
El Sazon Tacos and More, tucked in the corner of a BP gas station off I-35E and Diffley Road in Eagan, might not look like much from the outside, but as its loyal following of regulars have quickly learned, its menu far surpasses expectations. After all, El Sazon means “the right seasoning or flavor.”
“When you do something right and you do it with this [he points to his heart], good things come,” chef Cristian De Leon says.
From the moment Cristian and Karen De Leon opened El Sazon, they’ve depended on word-of-mouth advertising to keep their customer base growing. “We don’t have a sign,” Karen says. “At first, we didn’t have money for it. Later on, we thought about putting one up. Honestly, we’re busy without a sign, and that’s kind of the fun of it.”
Cristian moved to the United States from Guatemala at the age of 18, while his wife, Karen, moved to the states with her mother from Mexico when she was 10. They have three children: Christian (15), Sofia (11) and Santiago (9). Careers spent in the service industry and a passion for food prepared them for opening their own place.
Embracing the Pivot
“We got laid off when COVID-19 hit,” Karen says. “When we went back to work, it wasn’t the same.”
Karen had been working as an assistant manager at Pittsburgh Blue, while Cristian was an executive chef at Chino Latino in uptown Minneapolis. “During that time, we thought about doing something on our own,” Karen says. “We had been talking about a food truck, then this came up.”
“When you’re always working for someone else, you always have to ask someone else. I have all this freedom to create whatever I want,” Cristian says.
To their surprise, business took off quickly, and within a couple of weeks, El Sazon was featured in an article in the Star Tribune. After that, the couple says everything else fell into place. “We’re super grateful for the Eagan community, too,” Karen says. “We did one post on the Eagan community page, just to let people know that we’re here, and eventually people were talking about us on there, too.”
The menu at El Sazon is simple, she says. There are five different meats to choose from: birria (roasted beef), pollo al pastor (chicken), asada (grilled steak), camaron (shrimp) or carnitas (slow roasted pork). Vegetables can be added in place of meat, too. From there, customers choose how it’s prepared, whether that’s in a taco, burrito, bowl, torta or mulita.
The Quesabirria is one of the best sellers. It includes shredded beef, cheese, cilantro and salsa and is served on a tortilla made with heirloom corn from Nixta in Minneapolis.
“When people come in for the first time, we always recommend that,” Cristian says. “And something that people like, too, is the Birria Ramen. It’s different.”
Birria Ramen is a dish that’s served with ramen noodles, shredded beef, onions, cilantro, jalapenos, radish and avocado. It comes with two birria and cheese taquitos, too.
A New Venture
Meanwhile, the De Leons just opened their first full-service restaurant, Sazon Cocina & Tragos, at 53rd Street and Lyndale Avenue in south Minneapolis.
“I wanted to concentrate on the things we’re eating as a family,” Cristian says of the menu at his new restaurant. “She’s from Mexico. I’m from Guatemala, but we kind of create our family in Minneapolis. It’s a combination of the food we eat in Minneapolis and the food we eat at home. What I call Latin America cuisine.”
And, so it seems for this busy couple, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate in this season of life.