El Sazon’s cuisine served from an unlikely location

Two people stand in front of a painting of a taco
Karen and Cristian De Leon pose in front of the El Sazon service window inside the Eagan, Minn. gas station where their kitchen is located on Sept. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Cristian De Leon works effortlessly in the small kitchen. At the grill, he heats corn tortillas while chicken sizzles, then takes a couple of steps to the prep counter where he finishes preparing the tacos before he plates the food — making it look like a work of art.

Watching him work, you’d never imagine that being a chef wasn’t something he enjoyed or even liked. But when he came from Guatemala nearly 20 years ago, he needed a job. Working in a restaurant provided the way for him to pay the bills.

“I used to hate it. And now I love it. I don’t see myself doing something different,” he said.

De Leon’s outlook on cooking changed when he met a chef who showed him the fundamentals of food and its connection between cultures. It was then that he began to enjoy cooking.

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De Leon has worked as a chef at different restaurants in the Twin Cities for years. But that changed six months ago, when De Leon and his wife, Karen De Leon, opened El Sazon.

A pair of tongs places chicken on a tortilla
Chef Cristian De Leon prepares chicken al pastor tacos, one of El Sazon’s signature dishes, in their Eagan, Minn. restaurant on Sept. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The restaurant is located in a place where people don’t usually look for quality food: inside a gas station in Eagan, just off I-35E and Diffley Road. People usually think of gas stations as places to get frozen pizzas and chips – not chef made food.

Karen De Leon said she had some reservations about opening a restaurant inside a gas station.

“I’ve been proven wrong. It doesn’t matter where you are, if you know good food, people will go for it,” she said.

When the pandemic hit, the couple were laid-off from their respective restaurant jobs.

It gave them the opportunity to cook at home as a family, she said. It also led them to experiment with different recipes – including making birria.

Black menu boards hang on a wall
El Sazon’s menu hangs on the wall next to the restaurant’s service counter in Eagan, Minn. Sept. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Although the menu features traditional Mexican food items such as tacos and tortas, Cristian De Leon said he wouldn’t call it exclusively Mexican.

“I always say it’s a mix between Mexican and all my background cooking at different restaurants here in the Twin Cities,” he said.

And that birria they began making at home is now a top seller. When they first opened, they’d make 25 pounds of birria for the week, Karen De Leon said. Now they make 200 pounds.

True to his background, De Leon uses birria in different dishes – including a birria pizza and a birria ramen.

The idea of experimenting and trying different food items is to give people that “wow” factor, Karen De Leon said.

A man prepares tacos and a quart size deli
Chef Cristian De Leon prepares a plate of El Sazon’s signature quesabirria tacos at their Eagan, Minn. restaurant inside a BP gas station on Sept. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“We do tacos, but we want to get people to try different things and what is going to get people excited to try us,” she said.

They recently added brunch to the menu on Fridays and Saturdays. And you’ll find some unique brunch items – including French toast made with conchas, a Mexican sweet bread. They also offer a concha burger made with a mix of hamburger and chorizo and topped with an egg. And yes, the bun is a concha.

El Sazon offers a fixed menu. But there’s also weekly specials that are posted on social media, Karen De Leon said. 

They also have pop-ups. This summer they had a burrito challenge. And recently, an end-of-summer burger festival.

Tacos and soup sit on a tray
One of El Sazon’s signature dishes, quesabirria tacos with consommé on the side, is ready to serve at their Eagan, Minn. restaurant inside a BP gas station on Sept. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Birria is the biggest seller, but the shrimp tacos are also a customer favorite.

“We do them a little different. We fry it in tempura, we do a tamarind glaze, a spicy mayo and some cabbage. And the people love those,” Christian De Leon said.

As for the future, he sees himself opening more restaurants. But fans of the gas station location needn’t worry.

“The plan is to keep this one,” Christian De Leon said. “And do a concept like this but as a sit-down restaurant. We want to show our food. We want to show our passion.”

Vicki Adame covers Minnesota’s Latino communities for MPR News via Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.