"We’re trying to up the ante here in South Florida for tacos," says Clay Carnes.
Which is a good thing, because right now, South Florida can't seem to get enough tacos.
"I love Latin cuisine, especially the taco," says the former chef de cuisine for Palm Beach's Cucina Dell' Arte and the Grille Fashion Cuisine in Wellington. "It's the perfect vehicle for any ingredient or flavor combination, and the two years I spent in Ecuador definitely opened my eyes to a lot of the ingredients used there and served as a starting point for a lot of what I've done in the kitchen over the past few years."
Carnes recently announced plans to debut his first restaurant, slated to open this summer in West Palm Beach's antique row district. He says he decided on West Palm Beach to support the area's growing food scene while drawing on his former stomping grounds for local support.
"I really want to be part of the founding crowd for this area, to be one of the catalysts for helping to grow the dining scene in antique row," Carnes says.
To do so, he's debuting Cholo Soy Cocina, his attempt to offer a new approach to Latin cuisine. Armed with locally grown produce and top-quality meats — along with a self-described "no nonsense" approach to cooking — Carnes says his menu will focus specifically on Andean flavors and South American Latin cuisine.
"[The word] 'cholo' is a slang term in Ecuador for the indigenous people," says Carnes, speaking of the restaurant name. "It can also mean 'mixed' or 'ghetto.' I came across it written on a wall in a Peruvian restaurant, and it was perfect. It reflects our cuisine here as mixed and indigenous, as well as authentic."
A graduate of the French Culinary Institute and ALMA La Scoula Internazionale di Cucina Italiana, Carnes got his start as chef de cuisine at Cucina Dell’ Arte before relocating to Cuenca, Ecuador, where he helmed the kitchen as executive chef at boutique hotel Mansion Alcazar. Carnes returned to South Florida in 2011 to open Wellington restauranthe the Grille, where he began to incorporate the ingredients of Ecuador into his creations.
The 600-square-foot future restaurant — a former design studio located off Dixie Highway — will offer an intimate, sit-down dining experience with just a dozen seats, including standing room at a takeaway counter. A small patio space will offer alfresco dining.
Carnes says the yet-to-be-released menu will most certainly have a section reserved for tacos, each prepared using locally grown, organic masa for fresh, handmade corn tortillas.
In addition to tacos, expect to find a number of piqueo — or "finger foods" — as well as market-plate-style entrées with roasted meats, vegetables, and rice similar to the types of dishes you'd find served by market vendors across South America.
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Canes also hopes to host regular ticket-only "puerta cerrada"-style dinners several times each month at Cholo Soy Cocina, each one featuring new chefs from around the state. The idea, he says, is to introduce patrons to a variety of guest chefs to create a memorable (as well as affordable) experience for anyone who participates.
"We’ll work with local farms and purveyors and use a lot of dry grains and ingredients so we won't be limited to seasonality," says Carnes. "We will really concentrate on growing our own peppers, herbs, and other vegetables on our patio and rooftop garden, because we are looking for specific flavors only found in certain regions of the world."
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.