When Todd Blue needed someone to re-invent the 445 E. Market St. space once occupied by terrific restaurants like Primo and Mozz, he contacted an expert.
J.D. Rothberg, who made his mark in Louisville creating venues like Napa River Grill and, with partner Shane Hall, the very successful Wild Eggs, did not suggest repeating an earlier success but used the opportunity to develop a new dining experience—Wild Rita’s.
Teaming up with operating partner Todd Troy, a veteran manager of the distinguished English Grill under Chef Joe Castro at the Brown Hotel, Executive Chef Tony Efstratiadis, and designer Amy Swope, the group went to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula for research, inspiration, and to put together a game plan.
“We went into the cities and rural areas to soak up the contemporary culture,” Rothberg said. “We felt our concept come together not around traditional basics of burritos or chile rellenos, but a modern Mexican cuisine that emphasizes quality proteins infused with great flavors, all in a vibrant setting with great service. Our idea was to offer a fun, energetic atmosphere and make good food fun.”
To enhance the space in the Cobalt building, which already included Brook White art glass chandeliers and a large wood-burning pizza oven, the team also collected artwork expressing the spirit of their venture. Now, in an interior of lively reds, oranges, greens and blues there are dozens of cultural masks on the walls, and a huge, commissioned bas-relief mosaic by Mary Dennis Kannapel of a totemic were-jaguar, half animal and half spirit, expressing the joy typical of Mexican culture.
“It’s a spirited culture and we are trying to represent that,” Hall said.
“The were-jaguar’s message is to live life to the fullest, have fun, enjoy today, because later is only another side of life. Remember to relax, you’ll be O.K.”
Efstratiadis, a native of Southern California and connoisseur of Mexican food, built upon the Yucatan cuisine, which includes Caribbean and Latin American influences. “The food there Is more diverse, incorporates a lot of seafood from the Gulf and Caribbean, and is vibrant, using citrus and spices not typical of inland or Western Mexican cuisine,” Estratiadis said. “A lot of people think Tex-Mex style with tomato instead of chile-based sauces and some Jack cheese is Mexican. It’s not. It’s a simplified version toned down for American palates. What we’re presenting, though is classical Mexican style, very modern, very contemporary, with an array of flavors and made using only the best ingredients.”
The difference is immediately obvious. Appetizers like the fresh-made ceviche bites of poached shrimp finished in a blend of citrus juices, mango and poblano peppers, literally dance in one’s mouth and that experience continues through eight varieties of tacos, and both traditional and modern Mexican entrees, many which key off the wood-fired oven in the open kitchen.
“We use it as our sauté range and at upwards of 700 degrees it is unique,” Efstratiadis said. “It lets us open up creatively and with some extra flair. We are trying to do things differently to open people’s eyes.”
Mussels with chorizo steamed in Tecate beer, a Mexican pizza made with a sweet dough of fifty percent Masa flour, a quick-seared steak with chimichurri sauce, and several pan seared shrimp dishes are examples of Wild Rita’s creative bent.
Of special note from the hot oven is Molcajetes, a rich stew of chicken, beef, pork and shrimp in a tomato chile sauce served in a 400-degree lava rock bowl. Its flavors are deep and complex but not overly spicy.
Pride of place is reserved for five modern entrees, each of which will serve the most ambitious appetite. They include an ancho and cinnamon-rubbed ribeye topped with chimichurri sauce, grilled bone-in pork chop with pickled onions and red sauce, a lighter, tamarind-glazed cod topped by crunchy, shredded jicama and a market-fresh fish selection. A standout might be the adobo-spiced pork shoulder.
“Most people wouldn’t associate pork shoulder with Mexican cuisine,” Efstratiadis said. “We give it a double spice rub, sear and braise it, and then serve it with chicharrones(pork crisps), an egg and chipotle raspberry sauce on top.”
In keeping with Wild Rita’s spirit, such entrees don’t come with trite sides like re-fried beans and rice but choices like black beans, poblano and hominy grits, a blend of Idaho and sweet potatoes with chipotle peppers, roasted squash and tomatoes, and double-roasted corn on the cob sprinkled with pepper and cotija cheese.
Complementing the menu is an equally ambitious beverage program developed by world-ranked flair bartender Levi Donaldson. Both traditional and Latin American cocktails are reinterpreted with fresh citrus and novel liquor pairings. And Wild Rita’s also offers a graduate program in tequila tasting.
“Along with our food, our point of difference is to offer the largest tequila selection in town. We allow sale by the bottle, which guests can ‘cage’ on premises until their next visit, and to offer accompaniments allowing guests to explore tastes,” Troy said. “We also said we must have the best margarita in town, which I believe we do.”
More than ninety tequilas are available by the shot or bottle. To help tame such an array, Wild Rita’s offers themed flights (celebrity favorites, José Cuervo family, Premiums, Aged Premiums, etc.). Two can share a flight and have a small lesson in quality tequilas that goes much further than differences between blanco, reposado, mezcal, and anejo. Flights of both the finest Kentucky Bourbons and notable Ryes are also available.
Novel tequila boards are available to enhance the tastings way beyond the traditional salt with lime wedge. The boards include orange dusted with cinnamon and chile powder, pineapple, house-made chorizo, pickled peppers, smoked sugar and black Hawaiian lava salt, little bites of different flavors to play off the tequila. Sangrita, an eye-opening blend of tomato juice, pepper and citrus juices, is also a great tasting companion when trying a flight or your newly discovered favorite pour.
Ten different margaritas are available, including the eponymous Wild Rita which contains Grand Marnier and is presented with a dramatic, flambe half shot of lime-infused alcohol. One can also try a Michelada, a unique Mexican-style Bloody Mary made with beer, or the Most Interesting Drink in the World, an aptly named blend of Dos Equis, Grapefruit, Falernum and other flavors.
Twenty-two beers, weighted around Mexican and domestic craft breweries, are available along with a simple but competent wine list featuring selections by the glass or bottle from Spain, Argentina, Chile and California.
Internet reviews are already lauding Wild Rita’s fresh spirit, style and quality at a reasonable price, and mention convenient free parking, both around and fronting the building, at its near-to-downtown location.
If your interest is modern Mexican cuisine or libations, Wild Rita’s will likely meet your expectations.
“I don’t care if it’s cupcakes, sushi or breakfast—it’s food. The question is ‘Have you been wowed?’ ” Rothberg said. “What matters is how much you can enjoy your dining experience, have a good time, and want to return. This is the target we are aiming for.”