REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For 21st Century Media
When Carlos Melendez came to the U.S. from Mexico City in 1991, he was 22 and dreaming the American Dream. (Carlos grew up dirt-poor in Mexico City, where he had to join a gang to survive, “and I did some things I shouldn’t have.”) Speaking no English, Carlos got a job as a busboy at a small Mexican restaurant, Tapas, in Northern Liberties. (He came to Philadelphia because of a young woman from this area he had met in Cancun, where she was vacationing with her mother.)
By working 24/7, Carlos worked his way up to waiter, then restaurant manager, then chef. By the time he was 28, he opened Coyote Crossing at 800 Spring Mill Road in Conshohocken in December of 1996, paying way more rent than he could afford. We visited Coyote Crossing two weeks after he opened, and on a Friday night, there were only two other customers in the restaurant. I thought Carlos had as much chance of succeeding as I had of playing quarterback for the Eagles.
But thanks to Melendez’ incredible work ethic, intelligence, unalloyed optimism, charismatic personality and rave reviews in area newspapers, several months of birth pains produced what eventually became the most successful Mexican restaurant in the Delaware Valley. It also has what is arguably the most beautiful patio in the area — filled with trees, plants, sparkling Tiki lights, water fountains and stylishly dressed customers. “We open the patio up in April because people in the area have cabin fever by then,” said Carlos, who usually keeps it open until mid-October.
When Carlos found out that a stately, historic building which formerly housed Bell Atlantic offices at 102 Market St. in West Chester was vacant, he went deeply into debt (in 2002) to finance a second — much larger and far more spectacular — Coyote Crossing at that location with 175 seats and a huge bar. It turned out to be a $2.5 million project and opened for business in January of 2004. Unfortunately, the recession that began in 2008 brought a steady decline in business, and the West Chester operation closed its doors in September of 2009.
Meanwhile, back at Coyote Crossing in Conshohocken, Melendez developed a most unusual (maybe unique) personal relationship with a former executive chef of his, Chris Lazorcheck. Chris, who opened the Desmond Hotel in Malvern more than a decade ago, worked at the Union League of Philadelphia, where he met Carlos’ ex-wife, Jennifer. The two cooked up a chemical reaction, and they have now been married for more than 14 years.
“It’s pretty funny,” said Carlos. “My former chef, Chris, is married to my ex-wife, and the well-being of our children is our first priority, so we make it work.” (The final proof that Carlos has an amicable relationship with his ex-wife is that he hired her six months ago to be his general manager, and “she is doing a great job.”)
How Carlos discovered his current chef, José Antonio Hidalgo, is yet another story one might expect to find in a movie.
“I was visiting Mexico City and having a drink in a bar when I struck up a conversation with a guy sitting next to me,” he said.
Carlos found out that Hidalgo was a lawyer who was fed up (so to speak) with the practice of law and who loved to cook as a hobby but had never cooked professionally.
“But he had so much passion when he talked about food that I asked him if he would like to come to Conshohocken and cook in my kitchen,” said Melendez.
Hidalgo came to the restaurant six months ago and was such a hit that he is now the head chef.
“This is authentic Mexican food, not dumbed down for Americans,” said Hidalgo. “What has really impressed me is that I am able to find all the authentic ingredients from Mexico from vendors around here that I need. I did not think at first that would be the case.”
Because Coyote Crossing was definitely beginning to show its age after 18 years, Carlos closed the restaurant in mid-October for a massive renovation. After seven weeks, including most of the work that Carlos did himself, Coyote Crossing reopened Dec. 8. It looks like a completely new restaurant, with all new chairs, tables, fixtures, upholstery, banquettes and a gorgeous new mezcal bar.
Mezcal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant, a form of agave, native to Mexico. It generally has a smoky flavor, more sophisticated and subtle than Tequila, which is actually a form of mezcal. Coyote Crossing offers 15 different types of mezcal that can be consumed straight or in cocktails, one of which, Pancho Villa ($10), with black berry and basil infusion, was absolutely spectacular. It did not knock my socks off, but if they were a little less tight, it might have.
Dishes that blew us away were the “botanas,” an appetizer for two with wings, shrimp, quesadillas and ribs ($18); silky black bean soup ($7); enchiladas filled with shrimp stewed in chipotle, then baked with Chihuahua cheese and chipotle sauce ($21.95); moist mahi mahi served over poblano cream with green and yellow squash and cilantro pesto ($25.95) and amazing homemade coffee ice cream ($7).
Our server, Sharif, is the ultimate pro who has been at Coyote Crossing for 14 years. It is always a pleasure to have him as a server. Coyote Crossing has always had a popular happy hour with reduced prices Monday through Friday, 4 to 6 p.m. Lunch and dinner are served on weekdays and dinner only on Saturdays. Closed Sundays.
More information at (610) 825-3000 or www.coyotecrossing.com