Sabor means "flavor" in Spanish, and Sabor Latin Street Grill founder Dalton Espaillat knows flavor.
Born and raised in Santiago, Dominican Republic, Espaillat recalls a childhood growing up on flavorful Latin street food.
"The easiest food to find is on the streets," he says. "It's a big part of Latin American communities. Eighty percent of people don't eat at restaurants, they eat food you'd find on the street."
In 2013, Espaillat gave those foreign flavors a home in Charlotte when he opened the first Sabor eatery in the Elizabeth neighborhood. The concept of a boundary-blurring Latin restaurant specializing in street food caught on, and last month Espaillat opened a fourth Charlotte Sabor restaurant in NoDa. A fifth is coming soon to the Steele Creek area.
The concept for Sabor (rhymes with galore, not neighbor) began with a craving. After leaving the Dominican as a teenager and settling in Statesville, Espaillat found that the transition to Southern cuisine wasn't an easy one.
"I remember there was one Dominican restaurant in Charlotte, and I would make the trip from Statesville just to eat there," he recalls.
Despite his street-food nostalgia and apathy toward the local food scene, Espaillat never intended to enter the restaurant industry. Instead, he studied engineering at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and founded a construction company. The Great Recession in 2008 forced him to reevaluate. "I had just had my first son, and I thought, 'I have to figure something out in case my job doesn't work out,'" he says.
Espaillat found his 'plan B' when he and two other partners bought into Casa de las Enchiladas, a Mexican restaurant in Plaza Midwood. "The chef was really good and the food was really good, it just needed to be marketed properly," he explains.
Under Espaillat's management, the restaurant became Three Amigos, which remains a staple in Plaza Midwood to this day.
Still, Espaillat found himself craving the Latin street food that he grew up on. "It was never my intent to sell Mexican food, we just made it work," he clarifies.
When he saw the opportunity to branch out a few years later and create a new concept for a restaurant of his own, he went for it. Thus, Sabor was born.
"With Sabor, we don't label ourselves, we just do what we want to do — whether it's Mexican or Dominican or El Salvadorian. We're not trying to be one country, we're trying to be an open environment for all of those menu items."
If breaking the restaurant mold was Espaillat's goal, he certainly succeeded. Sabor's diverse menu reads like a Latin street food "greatest hits" collection: Mexican grilled corn, Venezuelan arepas, Argentinian empanadas and Dominican yuca fries. That's in addition to the American favorites like tacos, burritos and nachos.
"We have a lot of menu items you would only find in one specific restaurant," he explains, "but you can go to Sabor and find that all in one place, done very well and in an authentic environment with authentic flavors."
Besides flavor, Espaillat believes it was important to stay true to two other important elements of Latin street food: speed and price.
"What I envisioned was having the quality of a sit-down restaurant, but in a quick-service restaurant," he says. "You go in, get your food, and you don't have to pay a lot of money to get a good product."
Since Sabor has quickly spread across Charlotte, Espaillat saw the opportunity to make a triumphant return to NoDa. In 2015, he had opened a second Three Amigos location in the neighborhood, but things didn't pan out for the Mexican restaurant. Blue Line construction left him on the outside looking in from the new restaurant's North Tryon home.
"Closing 36th Street affected us greatly," he explains. "It was hard for NoDa residents to reach us with so much traffic, and I realized customers were just used to our Central Avenue location."
The Three Amigos NoDa location closed its doors shortly after opening, but Espaillat's commitment to bringing Latin flavor to the neighborhood never wavered.
"I've been meaning to get into the NoDa neighborhood for a while," Espaillat says of the new Sabor location. "I had been actively looking and seeking out a good spot, and I came across our spot and was able to work something out."
That spot ended up being right next door to Cabo Fish Taco in NoDa. Though some might be leery of setting up shop next to an established neighborhood favorite (especially one known for tacos), Espaillat was open-minded about it. "We don't see each other as competition, more as a compliment to what we can offer. They're more fish taco, Baja-styled food, and we're more authentic Latin American."
Walking into the new NoDa location, it's easy to see elements of the classic food truck that has found its way into the restaurant. An open kitchen faces the restaurant, and orders are called out as they're finished. Diners can also find a hot sauce bar, scaled from mild to hot so there's no surprises.
The restaurant also boasts a glass case full of local craft beers, offered in addition to a menu of rum-based margaritas and mojitos. Similar to new neighbor Benny Pennello's, the impressive drink menu sets Sabor apart from most quick-service concept restaurants. It's a distinction that Espaillat plans to emphasize in the future.
"Once we get accustomed to the neighborhood, we're planning on extending our hours of operation at our NoDa location, staying open till midnight and bringing in a full-time bartender," he says.
When asked if any Southern staples have found a place in his heart (or on a future menu), Espaillat laughs. "Everything is so different from the flavors you find here," he says, before admitting, "Peach cobbler is something I enjoy, though. And meatloaf."
The future looks bright for Sabor; aside from the Steele Creek location opening this summer, Espaillat has plans for more after that. "We want one or two more locations by the end of the year," he says, mentioning Huntersville, Ballantyne and University as potential destinations.
Thanks to restaurants like Sabor, the Charlotte food scene continues to evolve. "There's a lot of variety now," he says, after sixteen years of living in the area. "We have a different food scene. The goal with Sabor is getting all of these different specialties into one place."