We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
Rowhouse Conshohocken - deep in the borough, far from the Fayette Street commercial bustle - is home to several restaurants, including Bar Lucca, the new Cerdo, and - for the last 20 years - Coyote Crossing, a Mexican restaurant set in an old house converted into a bar.
Carlos Melendez, a native of Mexico who had lived in the Philadelphia area since 1992, founded it. Having just ended the run of Tapas, a well-received Spanish restaurant in Northern Liberties, Melendez got a call from his investor about a shuttered bar.
Did you have any misgivings?
It wasn't the perfect scenario because 20 years ago, people were not very familiar with Mexican food. In the middle of a blue-collar neighborhood, it was very difficult, so when I started the restaurant I had a lot of death threats. People used to kill skunks and throw them on the roof of the building so the building would stink. They used to kill animals and spill the guts on the back door and tell me that I was, you know, a dirty wetback Mexican that needed to go back to my own country, and that's where the death threats started. They vandalized my property for a couple of years, and, luckily, I had a lot of support from the Police Department. Eventually, they caught the person. It was a neighbor. After that, the death threats stopped. I struggled a lot with the business back then but then Conshohocken started to grow.
What turned the corner?
Our philosophy has always been to serve authentic Mexican dishes, utilize the best ingredients we can find, and charge our customers a fair price. Mexican cuisine has a big misconception that for some reason it has to be cheap. The reality is that no food is cheap. It's the same cost to put 8 ounces of filet mignon with chipotle sauce as to put an 8-ounce filet mignon with hollandaise sauce. I'm in an area where a lot of very well-educated people have traveled a lot and they appreciate the product that we put on the tables. I feel that is the main reason why we have stayed in business for 20 years.
This place's look has changed considerably since the early days. What have you done?
This bar, which was finished in December 2014, is a mezcal bar. Mezcal is the fastest-growing spirit in Mexican history. After 18 years in business, I needed for my business to be revamped, and I did not have a beautiful bar space. My goal was to create the most beautiful bar in Conshohocken, and I think we achieved that. There's a lot of bars, but the height, the decor, and being able to open the doors and have the feel of being outside is something that we have successfully achieved.
Generally, comparing the old days to now, what's it like in the restaurant business for you?
People nowadays are a lot more educated about food than they were 20, 15 years ago. You know, we have a lot of food channels. So what happens is the food has evolved and the customers that are very educated demand a lot. Back then, you used to be able to put enchiladas on your menu and some fajitas and some tacos and you'd be able to make it. Right now, everybody sells that, so you need to come up with more creativity to survive. What I've learned is: If you don't evolve, you fall behind and you lose opportunity.
What are your top-selling dishes?
One of them is the tampiqueña, which is a filet that is cooked in a long strip and it's marinated in garlic and Mexican herbs, and then it's cooked in the charcoal oven and it comes with a mole chicken enchilada on the side, guacamole, refried beans, and poblano peppers sautéed with sour cream and onions. That's a very classic example of cuisine from the north of Mexico. One of the things also that we do is we do not use gas to cook our food. For about four years, we've only used natural charcoal. It really changes and enhances the flavor of your food.
What are the biggest challenges that you have now?
My location, in the middle of an off-beaten path. They love the restaurant, yet you need to keep reminding them so they come. Also, my biggest challenge is to get enough revenue from the winter. In the summer, nobody touches us because we have something unique.
Did you ever think of moving?
Yes, but I have not come across the right opportunity, and also I have become very attached to the property, not so much for the bricks, but every tree that is here, I planted them 20 years ago and I have watched this place blossom. For the time being, I think we're going to stay here for a while.