"It is not a casual endeavor to open a restaurant," Chef Erik Niel told me, clearly exhausted by the process, but still optimistic about the upcoming grand opening of Little Coyote on Monday.
The St. Elmo spot will join his other two restaurants, Easy Bistro and Main Street Meats.
I haven't even taken the first lick of guajillo chili-spiced vanilla soft serve ice cream or eaten any beef cheek barbacoa wrapped in a freshly pressed tortilla, and Little Coyote and I already have a special relationship. Even before Kate Kassin and Bon Appetit Magazine touted it as one of "The 8 Most Anticipated Restaurant Openings of Summer 2023," I'd already written about it in my first article as the food writer here at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Having personally witnessed my father and his colleague open a Jamaican restaurant from the ground up, from start to finish, I'm well aware of the gauntlet Niel had to endure, the roadblocks he had to dodge, the hoops he had to jump through. The tedious, yet mandatory, requirements involve general contractors, subcontractors, architects, beer board meetings, liquor licenses, health inspectors, fire inspections, plumbers, landscapers and other various people, permits, applications and headaches.
"It's not for the faint of heart," Niel said in our phone interview. "Getting all these things lined up, it takes time ... This was no quick and easy redo. It took a lot of time and a considerable amount of money to do this, but I'm really happy with the final product."
— What: Hip restaurant in the historic St. Elmo neighborhood focusing on fresh tortillas and smoked meats.
— Where: 3950 Tennessee Ave., Chattanooga.
— Phone: 423-800-7483.
— Hours and prices: To be determined.
I prophesied Little Coyote's vibe would be that of a "breezy oasis in the middle of the Lechuguilla Desert," except it would be across the street from the Incline Railway at the foot of Lookout Mountain. I knew bar manager Garth Poe had already kept us from melting in this past summer's sweltering heat with those frozen lemon drops at Main Street Meats, so I have faith he'll perform his libationary alchemy with agave spirits and come up with the new and improved margarita of the future.
So here's everything I know about Little Coyote thus far:
I know that the freshly pressed tortillas will be the product of "the finest dry nixtamalized masa harina" and a contraption Niel has shipped to Chattanooga from Mexico City, something that, aside from his epic meat smoker, he's extremely giddy about.
"I know it's weird to say that I'm excited about making tortillas, but it's such an important piece of this concept that we really wanted to put effort and time into getting it right where it needed to be," Niel said.
I know that Chef Jonathan Ferguson (the guy who convinced me that eating gumbo with a scoop of potato salad in the middle was culturally acceptable) isn't going to skimp one bit on the chuck eye, pork collar or bay scallops in aguachile blanco. I've also heard through the grapevine about pork belly burnt ends coated in a dark, rich mole, red fish with chorizo butter and plantain "hush puppies" that I'm hoping are like little deep-fried mofongo balls that I can dip in habanero aioli, over and over and over again.
I know that Niel's mind is always churning, always chasing influences, so that's why at the moment it might be the lechon asado, but I have no idea what the next moment might bring to your table.
"We've been working on this current opening menu for at least three weeks now, and while I'm happy with where it is, we're already working on the next menu, the next dishes to go in these spots," Niel said. "This place will never stand still. It's going to be fun to learn things and then apply them to new dishes, new techniques, new protein, new veggies, that kind of stuff. That's what I'm excited about, it speaks to me and where I'm at in my career."
This is the most exciting part about Little Coyote for me, having a chef like Erik Niel, with his all-star team in tow hopscotching from Texas to the Caribbean to Mexico to the Southwestern region of the United States, all the while gathering a cache of flavors to bring back to Chattanooga.