tortillas richard sandal

Making a New Menu With Chef Richard Sandoval

How does a world-renowned restaurateur develop recipes? We went all the way to Mexico to find out. 

BY Rebecca Treon


It’s 8 a.m. and I’m standing in the shadow of the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, savoring the shade cast by its baroque facade before Oaxaca’s midday heat envelops everything. I’m with chef Richard Sandoval on an exploratory trip to develop his newest menu. 

It’s one focused on the cuisine of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, otherwise known as the “cradle of Mexican cuisine.” The church is the meet-up place for that morning’s culinary and market tour, led by our bilingual guide, Valeria, of the food-focused tour group, Club Tengo Hambre.

Over the next three and a half hours, Valeria takes us to locals-only street taco stands to sample delicacies through labyrinthine markets, stopping at stalls our guide has been visiting since childhood to taste and learn. 

Chef Richard Sandoval works on cooking traditional spices and foods in Oaxaca. | Photo by Richard Sandoval Hospitality
Chef Richard Sandoval works on cooking traditional spices and foods in Oaxaca. | Photo by Richard Sandoval Hospitality

To start with, tlayudas, a thin, large, toasted tortilla topped in a schmear of refried beans. The asiento is a pork spread with shredded lettuce, avocado, Oaxaca cheese, and salsa. We try handmade tamales, stretchy Oaxacan cheese, spicy roasted crickets, and tejate, a refreshing pre-Hispanic maize and cacao drink. There were also many moles, the chili-based sauce that defines Oaxacan cuisine.

All along the way, chef Sandoval sips and tastes, asks questions, takes notes, and snaps photos. This last visit to Oaxaca had a purpose beyond pleasure. The chef wanted to research and develop an exclusive menu dubbed “Destination: Oaxaca.” The special menu is available from June 18 to July 28, 2024 at select participating Richard Sandoval Hospitality venues, including Tamayo in Denver. 

making tamales in oaxaca richard sandoval
Making tamales in Oaxaca. | Photo by Richard Sandoval Hospitality

The Beginning

Though his childhood happened in Mexico City, Sandoval spent his teen and early college years traveling Europe playing competitive collegiate-level tennis on an ATP satellite tour. Eventually he settled in Newport Beach, California, where the majority of the top tennis competitions were held at the time. 

By age 20, Sandoval had decided he’d tapped out in the tennis circuit, He turned to pursue the passion that was always at the back of his mind, food. So, he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. 

After graduating, he went to work in Acapulco at his father’s restaurant to learn the ropes. After mastering the fine points of restaurant operations, he moved to New York City as a challenge to himself, opening Savann, a pan-European, Latin-fusion restaurant aimed to make fine dining approachable.

Chef Richard Sandavol oaxaca
The chef exploring Oaxaca. | Photo by Richard Sandoval Hospitality

The Richard Sandoval Empire

In 1997, Sandoval opened Maya, an upscale restaurant serving Mexican recipes made with classic culinary school techniques. While at first diners were unsure of this new approach to Mexican food, it wasn’t like the Tex-Mex they’d been exposed to, soon, rave reviews from The New York Times and others came in. 

The inspiration to make and share authentic Latin American cuisine with the world started when he saw the American-style taco. That hard yellow corn shell, ground beef topped with shredded lettuce, cheddar cheese, and sour cream, it was the sign he needed to push him to change the way Americans viewed Mexican food.

Like a ball rolling downhill, Sandoval’s restaurant group gained momentum. Next he opened a second location of Maya in San Francisco, followed by Tamayo, Zengo, and Toro Latin Kitchen in Denver in 2001, 2004, and 2020 respectively. Zengo has since shuttered, but Tamayo celebrates over two decades serving diners on Larimer Square. 

making masa for tamales richard sandal
Making masa for tamales. | Photo by Richard Sandoval Hospitality

Today, Sandoval owns 65 restaurants around the world. The brands include Pampano, La Sandia, Zengo, Latinicity, La Biblioteca, Venga Venga, and Toro. His restaurants can be found in cities and countries including Dubai, Qatar, Serbia, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, Punta Mita, Los Cabos, Aspen, Miami, Chicago, and Washington D.C.

Menu Development

Following the morning hours traipsing through Oaxaca’s markets and street food stands, we were shuttled outside of the city to the home of Sonia Silvia. Silvia teaches a home-cooking class along with her son, Baldo, on their small organic farm and guest property. 

Over the next few hours, we learned about the process of nixtamalization, where corn kernels are softened in order to be ground into masa. We sliced, chopped, diced, and even ground spices and cacao on a metate, a traditional grinding stone and rolling pin people have used since ancient times. The chef and I charred homegrown chiles and tomatoes in a clay oven to make salsas. Then rolled and folded our own tortillas into tetelas, tri-cornered masa pockets filled with beans and cheese and browned over a smoking comal, which is a traditional cast-iron griddle. 

Tlayuda Oaxaqueña is one of the dishes on the special menu. | Photo by Richard Sandoval Hospitality
Tlayuda Oaxaqueña is one of the dishes on the special menu. | Photo by Richard Sandoval Hospitality

Next we sampled a few of the dozens of herb and fruit-infused mezcals Baldo makes himself. Finally, sitting down at a long table under strands of colorful papel picado flags blowing in the breeze, we feasted on course after course of Oaxacan specialties until the sun started to dip behind the mountains of the Etla Valley. Our hosts stood in the driveway waving as we pulled away, leaving us with not only cultural and culinary impressions of traditional Oaxacan food, something Sandoval would take to his own kitchens.

The Special Dinner

Now it’s time for the Destination: Oaxaca menu, which just went live at Tamayo. On the drink side, I can’t wait to try the Last Palabra cocktail ($16), made with Nixta licor de elote, Olmeca Altos Plata, yellow Chartreuse, lime and totomoxtle. On the food side, the Tlayuda Oaxaqueña ($18) comes with pork belly chicarrón, beef cecina, heirloom tomato, quesillo, avocado, pickled onion, and salsa verde cruda. 

the last word at tamayo cocktail
The Last Palabra, or last word, a special cocktail for Tamayo’s Oaxaca dinner. | Photo by Richard Sandoval Hospitality

It wouldn’t be an Oaxacan menu with out mole, and the pork mole negro ($25), a black mole sauce with huitlacoche foam, is heaven with grilled peach chutney. At the end is dessert, such as the Créma Brûlée de Calabaza, made with agave gooseberry, crispy churro, flambéed Nixta licor de elote. I may not be in Oaxaca anymore, but at least there’s Sandavol’s great feast to take me back. 

Visit Tamayo Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. The special Destination: Oaxaca menu is available a la carte every day until July 28. 1400 Larimer St., Denver,

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Rebecca Treon

Rebecca Treon is a Colorado-based food and travel writer and former DiningOut editor. Her work has appeared in AAA, AARP, AFAR, BBC Travel, Eater, Time Out, Thrillist, Travel + Leisure, Wine Enthusiast, and many others. Follow her adventures on Instagram @RebeccaTreon.