I'm dubious of fusion food.
Some things just shouldn't be combined.
Bacon cheeseburger pizza.
Philly cheesesteak soup.
Buffalo chicken wing milkshakes.
But when someone with skill takes a traditional food and takes it in a new direction, you can end up in an exciting place.
At ModMex, 1700 Toledo Road, Elkhart, Jose Rios is taking his father Octavio's traditional Mexican food and making it something new. And the result is amazing. This stuff tastes really good.
The food is kind of a metaphor for the building too. Octavio and several business partners bought an old fraternal club building about 10 years ago and opened Tres Patrillos, a traditional Mexican restaurant.
It didn't make it. Neither did a series of other restaurants that came after it, including a pancake house or two.
Jose, a Concord graduate, finished at Holy Cross College in May with a business and graphic design degree. He couldn't find a job, so he opted to open a new restaurant with his father in the building Octavio still owned.
“One of my dreams was always to open a restaurant with him,” Jose said. “We just decided to do it.”
Jose spent about four months remodeling the inside of the old building. It's got a fresh, funky look now. The menus are simple and understated. Lunch orders are taken on a Macbook computer at the front counter. Indie rock plays over the sound system.
Jose got his college buddy John Kent to move here from California to help. And his girlfriend Erica Macri and other family members joined in to help when ModMex opened on Nov. 11, 2011.
Jose built the menu based on the food he grew to love when he visited California taco trucks and a modern Mexican restaurant called momocho in Cleveland.
Guacamole is the star of the ModMex menu. Fresh avocados are mashed with the conventional ingredients, but that usually doesn't happen until an order is placed. So the guacamole is incredibly fresh when it's served with tortilla chips that come to the table hot out of the fryer. Aside from the freshness, the secret is the grilled poblano peppers, which add a little smokiness, but almost no heat.
You can get an order of guac and chips at lunch for $3. At dinner, it's $6 for a larger order. And then you can add pineapple, goat cheese, bacon, bleu cheese, crab or mango to the mix. A sampler is $18 for three large portions and a bunch of chips. I'd make the portions smaller and lower the dinner price, but that may be my new addiction talking.
I love the simplicity of lunch. For around $6, you can get chicken, carnitas, steak or vegetables in a torta or burrito or as tacos or a shell-less burrito. A number of people have said, “Oh, it's like Chipotle.”
The fillings include black or pinto beans, corn salsa, grilled onions and peppers and several interesting salsas, including a sweet, mild honey chipotle.
But a carnitas torta I got last week had so much flavor I forgot to add salsa until I was half done.
At dinner, a number of taco varieties are available, but these are different than what you've seen on menus locally. The best seller is machaca, beef brisket rubbed with coffee and a bit of spice ($12.50 an order). Tinga is a flavorful shredded chicken with sixteen spices and a chipotle salsa ($10).
The pork tenderloin is very good in its preparation of spicy red mole with sweet potato puree, fried okra and toasted almonds ($12).
On the dessert menu, Octavio is offering his flan, which he's been making for most of his three decades or so in the restaurant business.
The recipes are good, but a key is that Jose buys fresh ingredients and they make the food to order.
Business was O.K. until a report on WNDU television amped it up. And word is spreading about how flavorful the food at this place is. The question is how the Rios family will respond. They already stopped making tortillas by hand, but did hire someone to work as a fry boy to keep up with the need for chips. Meals made to order take time and the menu warns you of that. In addition, demand may run the restaurant out of a menu item or special.
I haven't had the Korean tacos that were on special a couple weeks ago, but want to try them. And I expect the menu will continue to change. Jose wants to offer salads or paninis this summer. “I get bored when I go to a restaurant and they have the same thing year after year after year,” he said. “I like change a lot.”
He wants to grow and would consider locations in Goshen, Granger or even Florida.
It may depend on how quickly ModMex could get liquor license, which it doesn't have. Legal issues related to Octavio's business partners have made it difficult, Jose said. The place would benefit greatly from being able to serve at least beer and wine, but so far it's not happening.
But dishes are coming out of the kitchen with a fresh take on Mexican food and a lot of resulting flavor. That's all good.
If You Go
Where: 1700 Toledo Road, Elkhart
Fare: Modern Mexican
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday
Details: Credit cards accepted, handicapped accessible, no smoking, catering available, no alcohol.
On Facebook as ModMex Restaurant
Ÿ The Middlebury Sons of the American Legion had its first steak dinner of the season on Jan. 25 and raised $1,346 for Sam Grewe's family. Sam's father, Randy, cuts the steaks at Old Hoosier Meats for the event. Two hundred people ordered the dinners and about 30 more would have liked to, but the Legion ran out in about two hours, according to Charles Hostetler, commander. The next steak dinner there is Feb. 25. The Legion earned four stars in last year's Steak Quest.
Ÿ Congratulations to Veronica Ruiz, manager of the McDonald's at 2808 Cassopolis St., Elkhart, who was a recent winner of the Ray Kroc Award. It's given to the top 1 percent of managers in the country, based on performance in restaurant operation, commitment to people and building the business, according to a press release.
Ÿ Valentine's Day is on a Tuesday this year, which will be a bonanza for local restaurants, but Lucchese's is having a brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12. The cost is $18 for adults and $7 for children age 2 to 12. Reseverations are recommended. The restaurant will also have a prosecco tasting at 6:30 p.m. this Wednesday. Cost is $20 per person and reservations are required. Phone: 574-522-4137
Ÿ Bristol Public Library celebrated National Pie Day last Monday with a contest. Marcia Griffen of Elkhart won the event with her lemon raspberry ribbon pie, according to a press release. Rosetta Mullet of Goshen submitted three of the 11 total pies and was the runner-up with a pecan pie.. Judges were Ross Hougland, Gary Stoltz and Paul Becher.
Ÿ Ben's Soft Pretzels will be selling home pretzel-making kits Sam's Club, 4024 Elkhart Road, Goshen. The kits can also be sold as fundraisers, according to a press release. Ben's Bakery cookies and pies are also being sold at the local Sam's Club.
Ÿ Reader Darrell Tomlinson is wondering where to find good beans and cornbread at an Elkhart County restaurant. He doesn't want bean soup. He wants beans. Any suggestions?
Marshall V. King is news/multimedia editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth/eTruth.com. You can reach him at 574-296-5805, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @hungrymarshall or via facebook.com/diningalaking.