One sunny day last November found shocked Seattleites milling around on a Fremont sidewalk working through the various stages of grief. People shed tears and left flowers. Someone lit a candle in front of the flamingo-colored door of Paseo, the Caribbean sandwich shop whose unexpected closure prompted mourning on par with losing a rock legend or particularly charismatic monarch.
For 20 years, the bare bones shop assembled its gloriously untidy Caribbean roast sandwiches, sweeping aioli across sturdy Macrina rolls, then layering on brightly flavored pork shoulder, pickled jalapeños, romaine, and unruly ticker tape–size ribbons of caramelized onions. Until owner Lorenzo Lorenzo, facing a labor lawsuit from four former employees, declared bankruptcy and shuttered both locations without warning. The ensuing events packed enough intrigue to fuel a feature film—one where Ryan Santwire’s quest would surely merit a musical montage.
Santwire spent years eating at Paseo, taking friends, business associates, and even a few first dates—“you can break down any walls with that sandwich.” The self-described serial entrepreneur won the restaurant’s name and physical assets at a bankruptcy court auction, but only after coaxing Paseo’s landlord to give him the lease and convincing some former employees to help him—a complete stranger—reverse engineer the famed menu: Santwire’s $91,000 bid didn’t include the recipes; those had emigrated with Lorenzo from Havana long ago.
“Then came the scary part,” he says—recreating the sandwich people love enough to wait in line in the rain. Enough to drive across town on visits home from college or show off to out-of-town guests.
Out of a job, but enamored with the tradition of feeding people (and in possession of those family recipes) Lorenzo’s sons, 28-year-old Lucas and Julian, 25, meanwhile pooled their savings to open their own business in a former burger shack in Ballard’s northern reaches. They named it Un Bien, a slang term akin to doing someone a solid; the kitchen line is almost completely staffed by Paseo alums.
Pausing briefly during a busy Wednesday lunch hour, Julian and Lucas Lorenzo choose their words with care. Both worked alongside their dad since high school, but Un Bien is their own business. A chance to do things their way, like adding a few gluten-free options and paying employees $15 an hour. Still, the menu is nearly identical to the one their father built at Paseo. “If you know how to do something well, you might as well stick to it,” says Lucas. Even the paint job is a similar bright pink: “Hey, it’s a Caribbean theme,” Julian points out. “The palette’s pretty set.”
Both Paseo and Un Bien regularly incite long lines. Both have added Sunday hours and retired the cash-only policy: Credit cards are welcome. Santwire says he’s “still sizing up” the viability of Paseo’s previous Ballard location but hints at additional outposts, perhaps by the stadiums or in Kirkland.
Neither party relishes a direct comparison, but it’s unavoidable when Seattle’s most beloved sandwich is reincarnated twice over. Un Bien’s sandwiches are tidier, their aioli thickly applied but downright restrained compared to the ubersloppy paper-wrapped missiles in Fremont. The pork’s better at Un Bien, the grilled onions more tasty and submissive at Paseo.
But analyzing a sandwich at this granular level misses the point. A Caribbean roast in either setting is a spectacular collision of flavors, but our obsession stems as much from the memories it conjures—long waits survived, hunger sated, and the (very full) feeling that something special just happened and it cost less than $10.
A good sandwich has a particular ability to stir emotions. It’s comfort food, sure, but when did you last see someone shed tears and light candles over a pizza or a plate of macaroni and cheese? For two decades, eating a Caribbean roast from a bright pink shack in Seattle has been an act of sustenance. Now it’s also an act of loyalty.