Between the greeting cards and the beef jerky, three long tables were set for dinner.
Dark cloths were draped over the folding tables, where chef Cristian de Leon and his team set out large, blue-rimmed white plates, each artfully arranged with fish and seafood. Hugging the lower left edge of the plates were a single mussel, piece of white fish, scallop, potato, shard of fish skin, lemon wedge, plump shrimp and a crispy tortilla round — not the bagged kind with powdered cheese displayed on an endcap between the dinner guests and the kitchen, but a chip made from locally nixtamalized masa.
Zoilo Ruacho, a bartender and server, walked from guest to guest pouring a light tomato broth from a clear plastic cup, turning this deconstructed seafood lineup into a unified bouillabaisse.
You don't see that kind of tableside service much in restaurants anymore. And certainly not in a place where you have to pump your own gas. Yet here, in the middle of an Eagan BP, de Leon has been quietly raising expectations about what rest-stop food can be.
This event was the third installment of "Night at the Gas Station," a five-course tasting dinner that stretches to the limit the capabilities of a convenience store kitchen no larger than a bathroom stall.
Cristian De Leon, 38, and his wife, Karen de Leon, 33, both left stable restaurant jobs last year after decades in the business — he having run kitchens at places such as the Copper Hen, Chino Latino, the Good Earth and the Icehouse, and she as a manager at Pittsburgh Blue.
Together, with the help of their kids and extended family, they opened El Sazon Tacos & More in March 2022.
The taco part is clear, even if it is a little off the beaten path; de Leon, from Guatemala, marinates and braises meats with pan-Latin flavors for tacos, burritos, pizza and ramen, all from a corner of the convenience store.
But it is the "more" part that has brought dozens of strangers to a meticulously crafted dinner that could have taken place in any of the Twin Cities' finest venues.
"People come in for the food and it doesn't matter the place," Karen de Leon said. Besides, she added, "You've got to start somewhere."
Stretching culinary muscles
Their move, like so many daringly creative food endeavors, came out of the pandemic. With dining rooms closed during the state-mandated shutdowns, and Minnesotans ordered to stay at home, the de Leons rediscovered a love of cooking for their three children. Cristian was especially inspired by the room that home cooking gave him to flex his culinary muscles.
He'd been trained in French cuisine and over 20 years he worked his way up from dishwasher to head chef. But as he explored his Guatemalan roots and Karen's Mexican roots in his home kitchen, he found the overlap with his restaurant bona fides to be eye-opening.
"I never cooked birria, but we started talking about birria and I read more about it. I found out, you do boeuf bourguignon, a French dish, and birria is so similar to that, only the seasonings change a little bit," Cristian said. He also realized that making queso, the Mexican cheese dip, was just like preparing fondue.
He started combing through Latin American cookbooks, many of which are now stacked on the window into the gas station kitchen, and created a menu that appears Mexican, yet builds on Guatemalan ingredients and some French techniques, too.
They thought about launching a food truck, but the seasonality was too limiting. A friend of theirs who had been working out of the BP was changing locations, and let them know there was about to be a vacancy.
It was less than ideal. The kitchen had little more than a 24-inch flat top and room for one prep cook at a time. And Cristian's dream was to open a full-service restaurant of his own that showcased the skills he'd honed over a full career. Could he prove himself to backers and diners from a suburban gas station?
They didn't have much of a choice. "For us it's a little more difficult as an immigrant family, getting loans and grants," Karen said. "A lot of people ask why the gas station, why such a small place? It's literally the only thing we could afford."
But there was at least one advantage of working out of a convenience store: they had a walk-in cooler. With that going for it, the BP became El Sazon's first home.
The de Leons gave up their corporate job stability and invested their entire savings into upgrading the cooktop and launching a business.
"We put everything we have in this dream," Cristian said.
Quirky location a draw
Surprising to them, the unusual setting became a selling point. Word of mouth and social media buzz kept the de Leons busy almost from the beginning.
"People don't expect too much coming from a gas station," Cristian said. Plus, the potential audience is far more wide-ranging than that of the most acclaimed restaurants. Cristian has met and cooked for "landscapers, firefighters, doctors," he said. Turns out, most everyone needs gas.
Late last year, Cristian's friend, Zoilo Ruacho, came to him with an idea. Ruacho is a mixologist, and he wanted to partner with El Sazon to put together a dinner with nonalcoholic drink pairings at the BP.
"He thought I was crazy," Ruacho said about when he first told Cristian his idea. "But the third night in, we're still rockin' it."
Cristian was open to it. Coming from higher-end restaurants, he was missing some of the "dots and the drizzles," as Karen calls it — a plating and presentation aesthetic that doesn't quite come across in takeout containers.
They hosted the first Night at the Gas Station last November, and after selling out of the first block of tickets overnight, opened it up to around 50 guests.
The gas station's manager, Motaz Manla, let them push the display aisles around to make room for tables in the middle, and he agreed to close the store at night so there would be no walk-ins. Salsa music piped over the store speakers.
"When they first started, it was exciting," Manla said. He attended the first dinner in his own store. "It was kind of funny, but it's nice. I like to see people having fun."
Joanne Bolles and Lisa Beaubre of Minneapolis were among the guests at that first dinner. They got a kick out of the backdrop to their perfectly cooked salmon entrée: a live bait cooler. They came back again to the most recent dinner, and plan to bring out-of-town friends this summer should the series continue.
"Never in my wildest dreams," said Bolles. "The food, the quality, the presentation — but the location? That's a big deal. I used to work at 7-Eleven and this is bringing me back. I never dreamt about a four- or five-star restaurant in the middle of a 7-Eleven."
The meal that night began with a Spanish-style croqueta filled with shrimp and cream, followed by a 66-hour marinated birria-style lamb chop served with tortillas from Minneapolis' Nixta. A cheese course featured Mexican manchego and blood oranges on de Leon's house-made pizza dough. And then, the Latin-inspired bouillabaisse. The meal ended with individual "burnt" cheesecakes with powdered olive oil and goat's milk caramel.
One of Ruacho's drink pairings was a jamaica (hibiscus) agua fresca fragrant with cinnamon, served in a pouch with a straw. It called to mind the Capri Sun juice packets for sale in the next aisle.
"I love events like this, just weird things," mused Alex Brown, a dinner guest and a commercial real estate broker who is helping the de Leons find a stand-alone restaurant to rent.
Still dreaming big
There was a lot riding on this dinner. At the other end of the table, the de Leons were entertaining the owners of a grand Twin Cities restaurant space that could become an additional home for El Sazon, potentially giving Cristian a true brick-and-mortar canvas for his artistry. Ruacho would do the cocktails.
Should the deal go through — we'll know soon — the small group of people who have dined at the gas station will be able to say they knew El Sazon when.
"We can say we got in at the beginning," Bolles said. "It's kind of like seeing Elvis or Neil Diamond at a small bar."
The bubbly enthusiasm in the store gave way to quiet contentment as dinner guests took their final bites. People nodded with enjoyment, and despite the mac and cheese shelf and the fridge of energy drinks in front of them, the fact that it was a gas station had faded. It was just great food.
"You have to wonder what they can do in a full kitchen," Beaubre remarked. Bolles replied, "They can dance."
El Sazon Tacos & More, 1815 Diffley Road, Eagan, 763-276-0654, elsazonmn.com
The de Leons are not the only entrepreneurs serving scratch-made food within the confines of a convenience store. Check out these other tucked-away Twin Cities eateries, where you can fuel up multiple ways.
Ed's Deli: There's a fantastic Lebanese Deli tucked inside this Super USA in Lauderdale. Thick and fluffy flatbread is stuffed with meat, garlicky toum and French fries for a meal that could easily feed two. There are plenty of fresh-made grab-and-go options, too. Ed's Deli, 2424 W. Larpenteur Av., Lauderdale, 651-644-7982
Farmer's Grandson Eatery: Brought to you by Misfits Hospitality Collective, the bustling eatery inside a Shell station has a variety of burgers, chicken sandwiches, barbecue, street tacos, tortas — and breakfast all day. Open early until late most days, it's efficient (order at the counter, grab a drink from the cooler and pay at the gas station checkout) and tasty. There are grab-and-go options, and pleasantly comfortable seating, too. 1286 Lone Oak Road, Eagan, 651-452-0476, farmersgrandson.com
The Greek Grill & Fry Co.: Get all your Greek and American favorites at this counter-service restaurant located inside an Eden Prairie Super USA: falafel, gyros, grape leaves, spanakopita, souvlaki platters, cheeseburgers, lamb burgers, wings, onion rings, salad — and much more. Order online for pickup or eat inside at the no-frills but serviceable tables. 8795 Columbine Road, Eden Prairie, 952-943-2141, greekgrillandfry.com
Winner Gas Pump N' Munch: True to its name, you can get both gas and great food at this station near the U's St. Paul campus. Weekdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. the Lebanese deli inside serves falafel, baba ghanoush, gyros and lubnay sandwiches. There's also a selection of Philly cheesesteaks. 2233 Energy Park Drive, St. Paul, 651-644-1465, follow them on Facebook