Lifelong Sabor duo builds YEG restaurant empire

Crystal Carwin Lee (@crystalcarwin) loves food, so she is working her way through the best places to eat or drink in Edmonton. Profiles will be posted on TLG, and you can find her review of SABOR Restaurant on her own blog.

Co-owners Chef Lino Oliveira and Christian Mena at Sabor. <em>Photo: Jamie Tweedy.</em>
Co-owners Chef Lino Oliveira and Christian Mena at Sabor. Photo courtesy Jamie Tweedy

When SABOR Restaurant opened its doors in 2008, I had been working downtown for about a year. For the life of me, I cannot recall what previously stood in its place on the boardwalk of 103 Street and 102 Avenue. SABOR has ingrained itself so strongly within the community that it feels like it has existed in that space for a much longer period of time. 

That, to me, is a sign that co-owners Christian Mena and chef Lino Oliveira have done their due diligence and really carved out their niche in this city. The duo has created a memorable fusion of Portuguese, Iberian and Mediterranean flavours with a focus on seafood made right. Marry the food with the intimate atmosphere and live music (occasionally at the courtesy of Christian) every Wednesday to Sunday, and SABOR becomes a top destination to relax and unwind with friends and loved ones for an evening.

After going to the restaurant as a patron for a number of years, I finally had a chance to learn more about the pair who make SABOR run smoothly day-to-day. From our conversation, Christian’s and Lino’s passionate answers clearly convey nothing but love for what they do.

Q: I’d like to learn about your family/business history.  Did you grow up in Edmonton?

Christian: We’re both immigrants. Lino and I both came to Canada with our families at a very young age — my family is originally from Chile, and Lino’s from Portugal. Both families settled in Edmonton’s diverse north end.

Q: How did you first connect? Where did your interest in the restaurant business stem from?

Lino: We’re best friends. We grew up together in the same neighbourhood, and we worked together (sometimes in different places) as bus boys, dishwashers, janitors, servers and cooks at many of Edmonton’s favourite restaurants.

Christian: One place we worked together when we were young was at La Boheme – which is just across from our new Highlands BODEGA location opening this summer. We also worked with three other friends who are now part of SABOR’s team – Serge, José, and Marlon. It’s important to us to build strong teams that develop a sense of family and community.

When I was young, my focus was mostly on the service end and front of house in restaurants. I really enjoy interacting with guests. The flexible schedule I had working as a server back then also allowed me to pursue my career in music. While I was lead singer in a latin/pop/funk band ¡Maracujah! — anyone over 40 who used to frequent The Sidetrack Café back in the day would remember us! — I worked as a lunch server so I could have evenings and weekends free to perform and practice with the band.

Lino: Growing up, I focused on art and travel, and I really loved food. In 1993, after a European backpacking trip with Christian, I moved to Portugal with my wife, Debbie, to open a restaurant on the north coast. Eventually, we moved back and I decided, with Christian, that opening our own restaurant would be something really fun to do. It has always been a lot of work, but it’s pretty fun when your best friend is next to you.

Q: SABOR has been on The Tomato‘s list of top 100 eats in Edmonton previously. How does it feel to get that kind of recognition from the community?

Lino: We’re always very proud and happy to be acknowledged. We work really hard to create memorable dining experiences for our guests. From local magazines and newspapers, to international travel and review sites, it’s always nice to know our team is appreciated by so many people. We really value all the feedback and support from our guests.

Smoked Duck Carpaccio. Photo: Crystal Lee.
Smoked Duck Carpaccio. Photo: Crystal Lee.

Q: SABOR shares space with your other tapas restaurant, BODEGA. How long had you been considering opening BODEGA? How do the two areas within the venue differ?

Christian: BODEGA has always been in the works — more or less. The space on the ground floor of the restaurant has had a few incarnations since we first opened, always with more of a lounge feel. That’s part of the restaurant industry. Some things just take a little fiddling before they gain traction.

Lino: With BODEGA, we finally settled on doing a traditional tapas bar after a trip overseas reminded us of how much exciting energy Spanish tapas bars have. We initially set it up as a tapas bar with more of a lounge feel — more of an off-shoot of SABOR’s main dining room. It was simply the Tapas and Wine Bar at SABOR.

Then we realized it really needed its own identity to let people know that it was something completely different from the main dining room in SABOR. That’s when BODEGA was really born. We gave it its own personality, its own menu, and it has been working for us ever since.

Christian: SABOR is the dining room — it’s for dinner, and celebration, and business, and sitting down and really spending time with your friends and the food. BODEGA is the tapas bar — it’s for grabbing a few small plates after a meeting, or before a show, or hanging out on the patio with a pitcher of sangria and a charcutaria plate and watching the world go by. They both provide the same great food and service, but with slightly different experiences.

Q: You also launched URBANO Pizza Co. last year. Why decide to expand the empire now?

Christian: We’re really dedicated to the development of the downtown core in Edmonton. In the last seven years since we opened SABOR, we’ve seen a lot of changes that have really brought a lot of energy and life into the centre — things like the City Market, the Neon Sign Museum, and, of course, the ICE District. Edmonton’s downtown is blossoming.

So, when our neighbouring tenant moved locations and left the bay adjacent to us empty, we knew we had to do something with the space. It had to be included in our business somehow. Lino and I did some research, and we mulled over a few ideas. Then we stumbled on these amazingly cool high-efficiency ovens that look like robot heads. From there, it was just a matter of figuring out what they could do, and what we could do with them.

Q: Do you have a life philosophy? If so, what is it? Does it extend to the restaurant?

Lino: Our philosophy on business — and life — is deeply rooted in family, friends and community. Growing up in the north end, which was a huge melting pot of cultures when we were kids, we were exposed to so many different types of food, music, art, you name it. It was easy to be inspired and creative. That translates to our goal/philosophy — give people a reason to be inspired, to grow strong relationships. That can happen in a number of ways whether it’s through our guests sharing a bottle of wine and a delicious meal at our table, or by us building and growing our businesses in the community.

Q: SABOR has been open for a number of years, but with the recent re-branding to SABOR Restaurant (previously Sabor Divino) and the opening of BODEGA and URBANO, what kind of issues or setbacks have you experienced, if any? What learning curves have you had to deal with?

Christian: There are always things to learn working in the industry and most restaurant owners will tell you that you don’t get into it to become a millionaire. You get into it because you love it and have a passion for it. A couple of years ago, we hired Jessie Cayabo at BONAFIDE Media & PR to help us focus on our objectives for the future. She has acted as our sounding board and consultant when it comes to our profile in the industry and community. Jessie has worked with really great restaurants across the country like CHARCUT Roast House in Calgary, our friends down the street at Tres Carnales/Rostizado and Eau Claire Distillery (Alberta’s first small batch craft spirits makers). We knew we needed help getting to the next level and Jessie really put us on the right track. It started with the rebrand to SABOR and snowballed from there. We haven’t looked back and it has been really awesome.

The last year has been interesting and a big year for growth. Being an oil province, Alberta has always had its boom and bust cycles. Therefore, it’s important to be prepared for the downturns, and use them to your advantage, if you can. This is one of the reasons we’re expanding now. Although it may seem counterproductive in a slow economy, it’s actually giving us an opportunity with construction and labour that wasn’t possible just a couple of years ago.

Q: There’s a huge push towards local and sustainable ingredients when it comes to food nowadays. Where do your ingredients come from? What practices, if any, does SABOR put into effect to make the business more sustainable?

Lino: We are very focused on providing our guests with the best food we can. This is in terms of quality, value and environment. We source our food from all over the world. However, we will focus on local products whenever we can ensure that it’s the best we can offer to our customers.

In season, we source a lot of our vegetables and some of our meats, fish and other items directly from the [City Market Downtown]. We’ve hosted and participated in joint projects with the market, its producers, and other downtown businesses and restaurants with great success. These relationships have been very rewarding for us.

We’re also extremely proud of our Ocean Wise certification which provides our guests with ethically and sustainably sourced fish and seafood from around the world. As a seafood restaurant in a landlocked province, our focus really isn’t on farm-to-table so much as delicious and sustainable. Our menu is 100 per cent Ocean Wise approved.

Grilled Eggplant. Photo: Crystal Lee.
Grilled Eggplant. Photo: Crystal Lee.

Q: In your words, how would you describe SABOR’s menu? What are the cooking processes used? Is there anything that is unique to your restaurant?

Lino: SABOR specializes in Iberian cuisine — Spanish and Portuguese — with a little of the rest of Europe and the Mediterranean thrown in. I use a lot of my experience in Portugal to develop items, but I also use our mutual experiences working in local French, Italian and other restaurants. It’s a traditional focus with a twist.

We use a lot of methods in the preparation of our meals — there isn’t any one, special process we hold as unique. We focus on good food — traditional, honest and from the heart. When you try a dish like our signature grilled octopus from SABOR, or the patata bravas from BODEGA, we want you to feel something special. We want you to remember that trip you had to Spain last year, and think, “Wow. This is just like being there,” or be transported, and think, “I need to go to Portugal, if the food is like this.”

Q: What are your favourite dishes? Which are the most popular with patrons?

Christian: Our favourite dishes are the ones we put on the menus — it’s all of them. For our guests, we have several items that have become signature items because those are the ones our guests would never forgive us for if we took them off the menu — our lobster risotto, the lamb and spinach salad, our port cherry cheesecake and the Piri-Piri prawns.

Q: What do you think are the best qualities in a dish?

Lino: For us, the best qualities in a dish are flavour, quality and memorability. The food on the plate can’t just be fuel for your body — it has to feed your mind and heart, too. Dishes should inspire and sustain conversation across the dinner table because food is an incredibly important part of building relationships and communities. Every dish should have that in mind.

Q: From my own observations, the Edmonton food community seems to be pretty tight knit — it’s not so much a competition, but a way to help each other improve. Would you agree with that assessment? How has the local food community embraced SABOR and your other restaurants?

Christian: We definitely agree with that statement. The downtown restaurant community is really an amazing thing to be a part of. Of course we’re all here to make a living, and we are competitive, but we all understand that a strong, vibrant and diverse downtown gets more people to come from the outlying neighbourhoods and suburbs — there’s more development in terms of residential and public areas. Other restaurants in our area are our competitors, but they’re also our colleagues, and there is a great network of support and encouragement among us.

Q: What do you think makes Edmonton such a great place to pursue a business?

Lino: There are far too many reasons why Edmonton is a great place to pursue a business, but there are a few things that stand out. It’s about diversity and forward-thinking [energy] — environmental, arts and culture, technology — our festivals, the businesses that make their homes here and the initiatives the City of Edmonton takes. There are too many to list.

Christian: The economy is always interesting with Alberta’s boom-and-bust cycles, but Edmonton provides a great standard of living with a relatively low cost of living. We have a lot of people with a lot more expendable income than you might have in Toronto or Vancouver, and many of them see dining out as an event, not just a means to an end. It’s not always dinner and a movie. Often, it becomes dinner for three hours with close friends and family.

Q: Edmonton is a sprawling city, but the people are very supportive when it comes to community endeavours. As Edmontonians, how do you get involved? Is there anything that SABOR feels is important to stand behind?

Christian: We get a lot of requests for community involvement and donations each year, and we try our best to help as many as we can. Our charity of choice is the Bissell Centre, which is really special to us. In fact, we hosted a collaboration dinner with the chefs from Rostizado, The Marc, Three Boars and Union Bank Inn in the past and it was fantastic. We help the Bissell Centre throughout the year and love what they do for Edmontonians who need a hand up.

Q: When all is said and done, what do you hope diners take away from their experience at SABOR?

Lino: A smile, a full belly and a memorable experience…

Christian: …and the urge to come back with some friends!