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Front Page - Friday, November 24, 2023

Anticipation shifts to the next Little Coyote experience

Little Coyote serves smoked meats and fresh tortillas family-style. - Photo by Our Ampersand Photography

Carly Simon once sang that anticipation was “keepin’ her waitin.’” As she mused over a relationship that was less fulfilling than she thought it could be, she stuck around hoping for better days.

Anticipation has been keepin’ Chattanooga foodies waitin’ for the launch of Little Coyote, the latest creation of restauranteurs Erik and Amanda Niel, since early last year. The Niels are behind Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats, two well-regarded eateries in Chattanooga, so the mere thought of the pair launching another restaurant was enough to get mouths watering.

Their initial announcement promised a menu consisting of fresh tortillas and smoked meats. As a frequent lunchtime patron at Main Street Meats when I worked downtown, the Neils’ new concept sounded great.

Actually, it sounded like the London Symphony Orchestra performing Mahler’s “Symphony No. 2” at the Musikverein in Vienna. In other words, it sounded incredible.

Then it was time to wait. And wait. And wait. Eventually, I began to feel like a cymbal player waiting for the grand finale of Mahler’s interminable masterpiece. The restaurant’s website (littlecoyote.com) initially indicated it would open this past summer; that later changed to fall. And then, on Nov. 4, the Little Coyote Facebook page (facebook.com/littlecoyotetn) declared their doors would open on Nov. 13.

I was not only there; I was the first patron the host let in at 4 p.m. When I told her I was thrilled the wait was over, she laughed and told me the bar opened at 4 p.m. for cocktails, but the kitchen wouldn’t begin churning out food until 5 p.m. “What’s one more hour?” I shrugged.

While taking economic sips of a Mexican Cola to fill the time, I checked the decor. Little Coyote is located in the former home of Mojo Burrito’s St. Elmo location at 3950 Tennessee Ave. I don’t think anyone will recognize it, though, because the Neils have dressed up the exterior and transformed the interior. It’s quite refined, with what must be hundreds of small candles and tiny plant holders inhabiting every table and shelf. Imagine a tastefully understated and beautifully sketched Mexican theme.

I also browsed the menu as I waited. The food is divided into four sections, each of which is spelled in Spanish: Chiquitas (small plates); Lados (sides); Fuertes (which translates to “powerful” in English, but are essentially the entrees); and Helados (ice creams.)

As a server explained when it was finally time to order, Little Coyote serves dishes family-style along with stacks of small tortillas that come wrapped in a thick napkin to keep them warm. By “small,” the server didn’t mean taco-sized instead of burrito-sized, he meant smaller than taco-sized. More on that later.

Despite being presented with a variety of what I believed would be delicious offerings, my dinner companion (who arrived after I did) and I had no trouble making our selections. I chose the Pork Belly Burnt Ends (a chiquita), the Plantain Tostones (a lado) and the Beef Cheek Barbacoa (a fuerte), while she chose the Queso Fundido and the Aguachile (both chiquitas).

These and other dishes reflect Little Coyote’s panoply of culinary influences, which our server said includes “Latin America, South America, the Caribbean, California, Texas, and everywhere in-between.” That’s more than a few sources of inspiration, and I wondered if the kitchen had been able to combine them into a unified vision.

When the food arrived all at once in impressively short order, it looked great. Actually, it looked like super model Bella Hadid wearing Marilyn Monroe’s Happy Birthday Dress while walking down Acorn Street in Boston. Or, if you prefer, Idris Elba wearing a Brioni suit while starring in a James Bond movie. (Seriously, why can’t this happen?) In other words, it looked incredible.

The couple sitting at the table next to us voiced regret when they saw the Beef Cheek Barbacoa, a glistening pile of clearly tender slices of meat. I doubt their server eased their disappointment when he said it was his favorite dish and described it as “electrifying.”

His concise assessment summed up the expectations that had been building among local foodies since the Neils first announced Little Coyote in early 2022, and as I gazed at the plates on our table, I believed the restaurant was about to rise to those hopes.

And then I forked a chunk of seared pork belly into a tiny tortilla and took a bite.

I was anticipating a chewy meat, but it was dry, as if it had been overcooked, and the mole coloradito (the sauce) was too salty for my taste. Disappointed, I poured a few drops of mojo de ajo (a garlic sauce) onto a smashed plantain and bit into it. It was – again to my taste – too oily.

The Beef Cheek Barbacoa was better but not electrifying. I marveled at how tender it was, but the flavor was too subtle for me. It tasted more of fat than smoke, although of the three dishes I tried, I believed this was how the kitchen had intended the dish to taste.

When my friend looked up from her Aguachile, a seafood dish consisting of salsa, gulf shrimp, bay scallops and plantains, and asked, “How is it?” I raised my right hand palm down, spread my fingers and then tilted them back and forth, like an airplane tipping its wings.

That was my way of saying my meal was OK. In other words, it was like the Tennessee Vols 2023 football team.

Thankfully, my friend said she was enjoying her food. She raved about the queso fundido, a blend of sofrito, Hook’s Cheddar and Chihuahua, a soft white Mexican cheese, and said the Aguachile was delicious.

Our opinions about the house-made tortillas also differed. I thought they were too small and a little awkward to fill and eat, while she liked their size and flavor.

I emphasize her thoughts at the end because I don’t want my disappointment to be the flavor that lingers on your tongue after you’ve read this review. Instead, consider your gastronomic preferences and take into account the positive reception many of Little Coyote’s diners have expressed on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “We had the best meal last night,” one patron gushes in reply to a Nov. 17 post. “The food was amazing and the cocktails (were) on point.”

Besides, I’m feeling like Carly Simon as she sings “Anticipation.” My first visit to Little Coyote was less fulfilling than I think it could be, and I’ll likely return hoping for a better experience.