Saffron Thai opens a restaurant in La Jolla, with more expansion plans to come

Two years after the longtime San Diego Thai restaurant, Saffron, was sold to a local restaurateur, a hoped-for expansion is now a reality, with the opening of its new La Jolla location.

The 2,000-square-foot restaurant is located on Torrey Pines Road, the site of a former Chipotle Mexican Grill outlet that had been vacant for a couple of months when Saffron’s new owner, Karina’s, struck a deal to take over the space.

The new restaurant turned out be an ambitious makeover, costing about $500,000 to essentially gut the old Chipotle space and remake it in keeping with the light and airy feel of the remodeled Saffron on India Street.

Floor-to-ceiling windows, light-colored brick and a decor dominated by earth tones were used to open up the space, which also has outdoor patio seating at a long wraparound table fashioned from walnut.

While Saffron founder Su-Mei Yu sold her ownership interest in the restaurant, she remains a consulting partner providing guidance on the restaurant’s menu, long known for Yu’s signature grilled chicken, peanut sauce and salad rolls.

A longtime La Jolla resident, Yu is currently residing in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Southern India, an experience that has influenced her ideas for Saffron dishes, she said. She divides her time between India and her home in La Jolla, with annual trips to her native Thailand.

“I have learned to adapt my own cooking with theirs, in particular, by adding their spices that are known to (be) anti-inflammatory, such as masala mixtures,” she said in an email. “I also concentrate on dishes that take a shorter time to prepare, so I could spend more time studying. These resulted in dishes that I introduced to Saffron, such as masala curry, and stir-fries.

“Knowing that our customers who want to eat healthy and also are looking for dishes that are easy to eat … I suggested a wrap dish that I happened to eat in one of the spas nearby here.”

The La Jolla location for the second Saffron restaurant seemed a natural choice, given it is where Yu has lived for more than 30 years, and many of her patrons had asked her to consider it for a future expansion, said David Contreras Curiel, a partner with Karina's Group.

“We definitely want to open another Saffron, and we’re thinking of going north coastal for it,” Curiel said. “We have thought about going outside San Diego County but right now, North County first.”

Curiel said he is hoping to pair future Saffron locations with its fast casual Karina’s Ceviches & More, which is located next to the India Street restaurant.

The La Jolla restaurant, originally planned for a summer opening, took longer than expected because of a decision to enlarge Chipotle’s existing kitchen hood to accommodate its appliances. That triggered a lengthy permitting process, which delayed the opening, Curiel said. It also meant re-starting its hiring process.

Having anticipated an earlier opening, Karina’s had already hired and trained staff for the new Saffron, but many of the employees ultimately dropped out because of the months-long delay.

Instead of going through a lengthy retraining process, the Karina’s group decided to have a soft opening for Saffron a few weeks ago, using that period to train the front-of-the-house staff, Curiel said.

So far, sales at the La Jolla restaurant are close to approaching those at the India Street location, he noted. Having recently added on-demand delivery to the new restaurant, Curiel said the pace of sales should quicken in the next couple of months.

lori.weisberg@sduniontribune.com

(619) 293-2251

Twitter: @loriweisberg

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