Erik Niel spent enough time living in Texas to develop an appetite for smoked meats and fresh tortillas.
Niel, who co-owns Main Street Meats and Easy Bistro with his wife, Amanda, said he has long wanted to combine the two, but not in the way many people think of. He said Little Coyote, which he hopes to open in late 2022 in the former Mojo Burrito space in St. Elmo at 3950 Tennessee Ave., will fulfill that dream.
"I've wanted to do this concept for six or seven years," he said by phone. "I lived in Texas and love barbecue and smoked meats and tortillas, but with this concept, the tortillas are just the vessel. It's not tacos or wraps."
Voted one of the Best Chefs of America by his peers in 2013, Niel said the idea is for patrons to order a variety of the meats and specialty side dishes and then share them around the table.
"Someone might order chicken and someone else gets the smoked ribs, and then they order the smoked radishes and fresh cream or sour cream and other sides and then share. Sort of like going to a Chinese restaurant. They never put the dish in front of you, they put it in the center so people can share."
While the Niels continue to have success with Main Street Meats, where fresh meats are butchered right on site, and Easy Bistro, with its high-end bistro cuisine, Little Coyote will stand on its own with its own menu, Niel said.
"It will be its own restaurant."
He does plan to utilize some of his management team while it gets up and running, but he hopes to promote some current staff into management positions and hire new staff to work the front and back of the restaurant.
The 2,800-square-foot space - where Mojo Burrito operated for 19 years before closing last year - will be totally renovated over the next several months and will be equipped with a wood-fired pit in the back and a new tortilla-making machine he has ordered from Mexico. It will seat 130 people in the dining area and will include an enlarged patio. Niel said in addition to the sit-down dining, the restaurant will "focus on to-go items."
Amanda Niel said it's about trust for her, and she especially appreciates being at a point in their careers when they can offer a totally new concept she hopes will make St. Elmo and Chattanooga residents proud.
"We are super excited that people trust us enough so that we can be creative," she said. "This is not Tex-Mex or like anything else. This is the type of food we like to eat when we go out and now we get to make it ourselves."
Her husband said the location and space are "perfect for this concept." It has previously served as an American Legion hall, Hoppy's Last Resort in addition to Mojo Burrito.
"The space is great and St. Elmo," Niel said.
Mary Barnett has lived in St. Elmo since 1998 and wrote in a text message that she looks forward to the new restaurant.
"I'm so excited! The Niels are known for their excellent execution and amazing quality at each of their restaurant concepts so I can't wait to support them in my own neighborhood. Also can't wait for the opening of the Hot Chocolatier right near the Woodshop, which is starting to draw regular crowds and national acts!
"With the free electric shuttle and the Riverwalk almost complete to the Incline, seems like it's the right time to be in St. Elmo!"