Kay West | Nashville Scene
Some chefs make food so pretty, you feel you should photograph it. Some chefs make food so complicated, you feel you need a pocket copy of Larousse Gastronomique to understand it. Some chefs make foods so pretentious, you feel you are not worthy.
And then there is Ed Arace, who, when describing the food he is making at Mojo Grill, says with a self-deprecating laugh, “Well, this isn’t the kind of place people are going to get dressed up and go to for their anniversary. This is pretty much regular-guy food.” Which pretty well describes Arace, a transplanted New Yorker, pepperhead, and die-hard Jets fan. He’s big and burly and in the kitchen, he opts for jeans, a T-shirt, and a ball cap over chef pants, a white jacket, and a toque.
Most recently, he was cooking at Laurell’s Central Market on 12th Avenue South. Before that, he was at Jamaica, which has since closed. Mojo Grill, which shares a building and ownership with Broadway Brewhouse, brings Arace back to the Jamaica neighborhood, which is to say a little bit Vandy, a little bit Music Row, and a little bit midtown business. Then there are fellow Jets fans, fellow pepperheads, and people who just know Ed—of which there seem to be a pretty sizable number. On a mid-week night, customers streamed in steadily, and many of them poked their heads over the counter to shout a greeting while he manned the stove.
Anyone who ever bought a keg at Major Brew won’t recognize the place, which has been transformed by the Brewhouse’s Kelly Jones into a funky, casual eatery where you place your food order at the counter, but have to walk around to the bar to get a beer. If you choose to eat in the Broadway Brewhouse, you can order your food directly from the bartender and they’ll bring it to you on a paper plate with plastic utensils. You can also smoke in the bar, but not in the Grill.
Both sides empty out onto inviting patios with plenty of seating that is sure to fill up as the weather warms. A shared music system blasts blues and R&B appropriate to the gritty ambiance. (One gripe would be the blinding lamps hanging over every table—we weren’t the only party who had to unscrew the bulbs.)
Arace has an affinity for the hot and spicy, and thus you will find hints of Louisiana, the Caribbean, and the Southwest on his plates. He says that Mojo Grill’s menu has been in his head for years and that several dishes are specials that were particularly successful at his other places. He wanted to make food that would go well with the beers served at Broadway Brewhouse, as well as appeal to the regular guy in all of us.
He satisfies both requirements in nearly every offering but nowhere more so than the New Mexico potatoes, destined to be a signature dish at Mojo. They are a “regular-guy” interpretation of the rosemary roasted new potatoes that were a staple at Laurell’s and are on most caterer’s repertoires. “The staff there used to take the potatoes and cover them with queso sauce,” he explains. “I figured I wasn’t much of a rosemary kind of guy, so what the hell?” He roasts his new potatoes with ground chile pepper and onions, then covers them with queso sauce, chopped tomatoes, green onions, and jalape–o peppers.
The Mojo gumbo with shrimp, chicken, and andouille sausage and the Texas red chili with big chunks of beef were both smokin’; the green chili stew with corn and new potatoes was bland by comparison. Mojo Grill’s wings are a little different and quite out of the ordinary. Arace doesn’t have a fryer in the kitchen (“they make a real mess”) so he roasts his wings, caramelizing the various sauces that accompany them. Choose from the mild gringo, the medium chipotle BBQ, the Panama hot with jalape–o-molasses glaze, or the Mojo wow with habanero sauce.
House specials include one of my favorite transplants from Laurell’s—the one-half chicken, marinated in island spices, roasted then finished on the grill, which gives it a crusty, blackened exterior while keeping the seasoned meat moist and juicy. The fabulous dual-personality jalape–o-molasses sauce shows up here on the side.
If you can’t decide between jambalaya and crawfish étouffée, get the cajun sampler, and they’ll throw in a mess of red beans and rice too.
There are three stacks on the menu, which Arace describes as sloppy joes for grown-ups. They’re sloppy all right:a sliding tower of three grilled tortillas layered with your choice of grilled chicken and red beans and rice, grilled chicken and smoked trout spread, or black beans and rice and avocado salsa—then covered with some kind of sauce. This is not finger food and requires a degree of stamina, a stack of napkins, and a hearty appetite.
Burritos and sandwiches round out the menu. (There are three salads as well, but that seemed as silly as ordering a vegan meal at a steak house.) The shrimp in the po’ boy was grilled, not fried, but was traditionally dressed with lettuce, tomato, and rémoulade. The New Orleans Hot Brown was a major departure from the Kentucky version, with grilled chicken laid open-faced on top of a roll, then covered with crawfish étouffée, lettuce, tomato, and onions.
As Ed said about Mojo Grill’s first couple weeks of business, “We’re slammin’ and jammin’.” No doubt. There’s nothing fancy about Mojo Grill, but that’s the way regular guys like it. Full Article