NAPOLEAN: Cool Under Pressure
Napoleon Santibañes brings a host of new dishes to the Moon's while keeping the long-time regular customers content. Photo by Rusty Rae
Blue Moon cook keeps regulars happy while helping new owners expand menu
Napoleon Santibañes isn’t likely to appear in any upcoming glossy national magazine spreads about Oregon Wine Country’s foodie scene. But, he has as many fans as about any cook in town. The 47-year-old works the grill and fryer at The Blue Moon, the iconic tavern on McMinnville’s Third Street where old timers meet daily and wine industry workers and millennials flock to in the evenings. “This guy is the absolute best” is a common statement in the tavern from regulars and workers, speaking about Santibañes. His cool demeanor and friendly smile translates to his success in the kitchen. To him, the recipe of successful cooking is similar to that of life: Be focused, stay cool under pressure and have patience. Santibañes didn’t think he would be a cook in his youth. He grew up in Papanoa, Mexico, a town about the size of McMinnville about 100 miles northwest of Acapulco, near the Pacific Ocean.
Living in Tijuana, Santibañes was invited by a friend to move to Pacific Beach, California, to be a dishwasher at The Broken Yolk Café. He eventually began cooking at the diner. He knew instantly he wanted to work in kitchens moving forward. He moved to San Francisco in 1996, continuing to develop his skills at Beach Chalet Brewery & Restaurant and Momo’s. But it was a gig at The Sports Club, under Executive Chef Christina Betonda, that Santibanes learned how to successfully operate a commercial kitchen. The Bay Area health club’s food program was in and out of turmoil the first couple years Santibañes worked there. When Betonda took over, they started breaking records. He learned from her how to work under pressure and to keep food costs low while maintaining a high level of quality. “She was the best,” he says of Betonda, now assistant director of culinary excellence at Stanford University. “I learned to use what you have; create dishes with whatever is in the kitchen,” he said. In 2009, Santibañes moved to McMinnville to live near his grandmother, who, for the most part, raised him in Papanoa. Finding work was difficult at first, even with a good résumé and experience working at large restaurants.
“I put out applications everywhere, but I didn’t know people,” he said. “Nobody believes in you in the beginning. You need to find the person to give you an opportunity to show your skills.” He finally landed a job at El Nopal, in southwest McMinnville, and worked there through multiple owners and businesses, including the Wildcat Grill and McGee’s Bar. In 2011, he was hired by Blue Moon owners Gary and Colleen Schroeder. “Gary was very nice … Colleen was the best. She was like a mother to me, to us all,” he said. Santibañes also worked at Golden Valley Brewery & Restaurant for a few years and has held other part-time jobs in town, including IHOP and Nancy Jo’s — where he still works — while maintaining a full-time job at The Moon. In June 2018, three years after Gary passed away, Colleen sold The Blue Moon to Michael Griffiths and Justin and Amanda Dillingham. The new owners understood that any change would be met with skepticism from longtime clients. “It’s a really cool place, and it’s been here for a long time and has a lot of loyal followers,” Justin Dillingham said at the time of the sale. “We’re really not looking to change anything because it’s worked for decades, and we’re just happy to be part of it.” Some “light, refreshing” updates in the back of the restaurant include a couple bar games, a rustic panel look on the wall and soon-to-be refinished floors. One welcome change has been the expansion of food options. Specials were generally just weekend brunch creations by Santibañes. But the new owners are testing out new items daily. “It gives us the opportunity to test what people like and don’t like,” Dillingham said, adding that they expect to eventually redo the menu using feedback from customers. “It seems like people appreciate the specials.” The owners added to their portfolio in August when they (quietly) purchased local brunch favorite The Wildwood Café. Dillingham said they didn’t want regulars to worry about a change in ownership, and kept the sale quiet. He says they’re starting to add catering to the Wildwood business, and have the restaurant space available for events in the evenings. Like Santibañes’ specials at The Blue Moon, adding catering at Wildwood allows head chef José Olvera the opportunity to create new dishes. “Similar to Napoleon, [Olvera] is very talented,” Dillingham said. “He has a lot of experience.” Santibañes and Dillingham collaborate on daily specials, allowing the cook to show off his repertoire outside
the menu. For instance, “Napoleon makes amazing Kung Pao Chicken,” Dillingham said. He’s very happy with how the change in ownership has gone, and loves the culture and diversity of the Blue Moon customers. “They come here for a good reason,” he said. “It’s important they’re happy. If they’re happy, we’re O.K.” Santibanes says seafood is among his favorite to prepare. If he were ever to open his own restaurant, it would be heavy on seafood. “We need to have that in town,” he added. He cooks a lot of salmon at home, but said his favorite fish is snapper, which he often ate growing up next to the Pacific. He likes it grilled with some lime and herbs, especially the Mexican herb epazote. Santibañes says his wife handles most of the cooking duties at home for them and their two children, ages nine and 15. “Everything is made from scratch,” he said. Despite the fact they cook mostly traditional Mexican food at home, Santibañes sticks with mainly American fare in the restaurant because it’s difficult to find large quantities of the ingredients used in their home cooking. He has many cousins, aunts and uncles who also live in the area. Santibanes says they get together often for family dinners or games of volleyball at Discovery Meadows park. When asked to comment on his favorite food, Santibañes quickly says, “My grandma’s food.” A memorable dish of hers is Calabecita Rellena: baby squashes stuffed with cheese, breaded and fried, then topped with a special sauce. It’s one of many things he’ll remember of his grandmother, who died earlier this year. “I miss her very much.”
Blue Moon Lounge
310 N.E. Third Street, McMinnville Mon.–Sat., 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.; Sun., 7:30 a.m. to 12 a.m.