The Santa Fe Story
Santa Fe Tex-Mex Grill first opened its doors to a hungry Singaporean public in July 1999 with its first outlet at Boat Quay. Its trendy Tex-Mex cuisine was an instant hit with the young and well-travelled office crowd at Raffles Place as well as tourists strolling along the Singapore River.
In the early years, Santa Fe expanded quickly and opened two other outlets in and around Orchard Road, then Singapore’s prime shopping district, before deciding to consolidate its operations into one large ‘flagship’ restaurant (pun intended; read on to find out) in the Marina Bay area. That flagship restaurant, which is perhaps what Santa Fe is still best known for, operated until February 2019 when its lease ran out.
While it might look like a well-thought out plan, the birth of Santa Fe was in fact very much unintended, but by no means unwanted. Unplanned, but by no means unprepared.
You see, the story of how Santa Fe came about is closely linked to another story, which involves a Mississippi Riverboat. Let us take you to the very beginning.
Welcome On Board
It all started one in 1997, when our founder Eric Saw was casually walking around Sentosa, a resort island off Singapore, with a visiting American friend. As they strolled along the North Shore Boardwalk, they stumbled upon an unoccupied Mississippi riverboat moored there.
“How nice if we could have it,” Eric mused. “Why not!” his friend agreed. As Christians, they said a quick prayer together, and continued on their merry way.
After a few phone calls, and a brief meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Eric found himself in possession of a Mississippi riverboat. Many Singaporeans would fondly recall that the Riverboat used to be operated by fast food chain A&W, which pulled out of Singapore in the late 90’s. Yes, that boat.
From Mississippi to Texas
The Riverboat was fitted out with to be a floating restaurant, complete with gas pipework, an exhaust system, a grease trap, a dumbwaiter (food lift), and even a large walk-in chiller. The trouble was, while the Riverboat was fully equipped, its new owner was not! Eric was a HR professional, an educator, a trainer, and motivational speaker.
So, while the Riverboat was sent to a shipyard for repairs and retrofit, Eric decided that he needed to hit the ground running and learn the ropes of running a restaurant. He established contact with some F&B professionals, and with their help took over a restaurant space at Boat Quay to get into the thick of the action. On hindsight, that was a bold move, as that restaurant space just happened to be the largest in Boat Quay occupying three units of two-storey shophouses!
Now a restaurant surely needs a cuisine, and Eric and his family started exploring their options. The ideas that were bounced around included stews & breads, a coffee & juice bar, local seafood ‘zhi-char’, or even an innovative fusion concept based on the local ‘bak-chang’ rice dumplings!
Finally, that same American friend of Eric’s who was with him at Sentosa chipped in, “Eric, you should try Tex-Mex.” He did, and never looked back since.
The name ‘Santa Fe’ was chosen, which besides being the name of a city in New Mexico, also means ‘Holy Faith’ in Spanish… particularly meaningful to its Christian owner. In fact, the full name of the city is ‘The Royal City of the Holy Faith of St Francis of Assisi’, as it was the Franciscans who first took the gospel to New Mexico.
In those days, the late 90’s, while there were many American and Mexican restaurants in Singapore, there wasn’t any all-out Tex-Mex joints. Tex-Mex was fast gaining popularity in the United States and in Europe, especially France, and the rest of the world, and it was high time Singapore had its own Tex-Mex restaurant. (Read more about the cuisine in our other article “What Is Tex-Mex?”)
The Commitment to Authenticity
Since Eric had never been to Texas or Mexico in his life, he relied on a team of F&B consultants, a collection of cookbooks (hard copies at that, as the internet was still in its infancy back then), and his trusty American friend to taste-test the food every time he visited Singapore to ensure it was authentic.
Risky it was, but frequent visits from American tourists, US Navy personnel as well as invitations to cater for the American Embassy in Singapore proved that the consultants were not pulling a fast one, and Santa Fe’s food was indeed accepted and well-loved by the people who knew the cuisine best.
The consultants continued to guide Santa Fe’s culinary team for nearly a decade, until the team was ready to run on its own. Former head chef Caleb, who was himself trained by an American chef, was with the restaurant since day one. Chef Caleb served as a pillar of consistency in the restaurant’s operations, and Santa Fe won a number of excellent food awards under his leadership.
Santa Fe’s Flagship
We mentioned earlier that Santa Fe began its life as just a sideshow of sorts, a means to an end, and the main gig was in fact the Mississippi Riverboat which Eric had earlier purchased.
By 2001, the Riverboat had completed an extensive makeover in a local shipyard and was ready to begin business as a floating restaurant. This time, Eric and his family, with more than a year of F&B experience under their belts, were also all set to go.
The Riverboat was named Stewords Riverboat (Visit www.riverboat.com.sg/story to find out more) and operated at Sentosa from 2001-2006, and then at Marina South Pier from 2006-2019. Santa Fe ran a 100-seater restaurant on the Main Deck, while the Upper Deck housed a private function hall and the Bridge Deck was an al-fresco bar. Positioning herself as a floating food & lifestyle venue, the Riverboat hosted numerous private functions like weddings, birthdays, and corporate D&D’s, as well as public events such as music festivals, wine fairs, and overnight parties.
Alas, the Riverboat’s lease on her berthing space at Marina South Pier ran out in March 2019, and the parties came to an end. New berthing spaces for her are being explored, and we hope to have her back in action by end 2019!
Santa Fe Today
With the Riverboat out of action for a while, a new outlet was opened to keep Santa Fe running. June 2019 saw the opening of a new Santa Fe Tex-Mex Grill at 6 Purvis Street, a cozy 40-seater setup in the heart of town just opposite the National Library and stone’s throw away from Raffles Hotel.
Santa Fe is best loved for its sizzling-hot Fajitas, which besides the Classic Beef and Chicken versions, now also features exciting alternatives like American Wagyu and Cajun Shrimp. Other popular house specialties include Turkey Quesadillas and Chicken Chimichangas, both on the menu since 1999, as well as American grill house favourites like steaks and ribs.
Now under the watchful eye of Eric’s son Daryl, who grew up eating and breathing Tex-Mex, the Santa Fe story sizzles on…