As Mojo Burrito owner Eve Williams lamented in a Facebook post from February 2021 to a legion of the restaurant's loyalists who fell in love with the restaurant's barbecue chicken nachos, fish tacos and enchiladitos, "Goodbyes are hard."
Those goodbyes are especially hard when the roots in the community are almost 20 years deep. Since then, Mojo's owners have also shuttered their Red Bank location due to a "combination of unforeseen circumstances" -- which one Reddit comment said sounded like the name of a new burrito they should put on the menu.
Upon further investigation, a significant part of those "unforeseen circumstances" seems to be a malfunctioning water heater, a costly repair and a tremendous red flag for health inspectors -- the grim reapers of restaurants.
Fortunately, there's no shortage of burritos, tacos and nachos to fill the void Mojo left: The chorizo egg and cheese burrito at Taqueria Jalisco's outpost in Miller Plaza, nachos from Happy's Place underneath the Walnut Street Bridge and Taco Al Pastor shaved straight off a trompo at Tacos El Cunao are all worthy replacements.
The silver lining of Mojo Burrito's demise is that Chef Erik Niel's newest concept, Little Coyote, will take its highly coveted place at the foot of Incline Mountain. Niel (of Main Street Meats and Easy Bistro) will bring with him his James Beard Award-nominated pedigree from the Southside and West Village.
"St. Elmo is a cool place with its own vibe and a lot of history in Chattanooga," Niel said. "It was a race to get such a desirable piece of real estate, but we got it, stripped everything down to the bare bones and invested heavily in the build-out."
Skepticism crept in when Niel stated his influence would sprawl from "Texas barbecue" -- which could be anything from the fall-off-the-bone pork ribs lacquered with a thick, tomato-based sauce that the Eastern part of the state is famous for; to beef briskets with gorgeous barks and immaculate smoke rings perfected in the middle of the state; to "Cuba," which evokes thoughts of ropa vieja and crispy croquetas filled with ham and bechamel that ooze out after that first bite; the "Caribbean," which is so vast it could be bake and shark sandwiches sold by vendors on Maracas Beach in Trinidad or conch fritters like they fry up at Goldie's Conch House in the Bahamas capital of Nassau; and lastly, the "Southwest," where anything involving the "three sisters" trio of squash, corn and beans can come into play, and of course, the almighty huevos rancheros.
As I wondered how he'd corral all of that onto one menu, he eased my angst by assuring me that crux of Little Coyote's menu would be fresh tortillas hot off the plancha and an array of smoked meats like cuts of chuck-eye and adornments I think might include pico de gallos, chimichurris and cebolla en escabeche. He drove the point home that he didn't want to be pigeon-holed.
"I want to give myself and my chefs room to roam, be creative and not rest on any laurels," Niel said.
So lechon asado might share a platter with ribs that reminds you of Memphis, but more than likely prepared with more TLC than normal, and given his intense curiosity, I wouldn't be surprised if he managed to procure some butchered javelina, a pig-like creature indigenous to the Southern parts of Arizona and New Mexico, in particular.
So let's just relax. After all, Niel is the guy who familiarized Chattanoogans with fried mortadella and gazpacho made from strawberries with feta cheese made from sheep's milk, so there should be no doubts he'll curate something special in the communal, family-style atmosphere, where aesthetics seem to be that of a breezy oasis in the middle of the Lechuguilla Desert, complete with terracotta and turquoise galore, cacti, agave to complement the restaurant's cocktail program, which will be more ambitious than palomas and margaritas, maybe even some real taxidermied coyotes and last but not least, cones of fancy soft-serve ice cream in graham cracker cones that we all should be able to enjoy, hopefully by the end of August.
Contact Andre James at 423-757-6327 or [email protected].