Where Mexican food is concerned, chances are Scott Linquist has been there and done that. The 48-year-old executive chef and partner of Wynwood's Coyo Taco was the top toque at Dos Caminos Mexican Kitchen in New York and California's Border Grill, co-owned by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger. And the Southern California native just so happens to have penned the book on modern Mexican cooking, Mod Mex: Cooking Vibrant Flavors at Home.
Since the quick-service taqueria opened in December, lines have been out the door for unique items like tacos stuffed with quinoa "falafel" or crisp duck legs. It doesn't hurt that you can have a full meal for $20 or less. Coyo recently unveiled a not-so-secret "secret bar" tucked away in the back. There, barista and partner Anna Robbins concocts inventive drinks such as a margarita made with chia-seed-infused lime juice. Healthful never tasted quite so good.
Knowing about his years of experience, we were eager to pick Linquist's brain about life as a local chef, his zeal for Mexican cuisine, and Miami's ever-expanding food scene. The passionate and chatty cook was more than willing to share his insights.
New Times: When we spoke a couple months ago, you mentioned potentially expanding Coyo Taco. Is there any news regarding the restaurant's growth?
Scott Linquist: We’ve had a tremendous amount of interest from developers, real-estate owners, and all sorts of people, even large corporate restaurant chain founders. Honestly, right now we don’t have any plans to franchise. We do have plans to open more locations, but we don’t have anything specific at the moment. Let's just say we do have a lot of opportunity, and we’re lucky a lot of people are interested.
In regards to opening more locations, would those be solely in Miami or not necessarily?
Currently, we are primarily looking in the Miami area, like Coconut Grove, downtown Miami. We do have interest from people outside to open in New York and L.A., but I’ve run restaurants that were 3,000 miles apart, and it’s a really difficult proposition. We just have one location, and we’re still working out the kinks and we have improvements to do and organizational stuff to get in line before even growing locally. We’re going to be patient and weigh all our options and try to make the right decision.
Would you say that organizational issues are your biggest challenge at the moment?
Since the bar opened, we’re literally open from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. five days a week. We’re really blessed, but we’re constantly in business. That’s incredibly difficult from a staffing perspective, and just keeping things managed and organized is a huge challenge. We still need to figure out breakfast and to look at the menu and figure out what's working and not working. I’m doing specials to try to keep it alive for return customers and the foodies. I know where we need to improve, and we’re pretty much almost there.
So are you getting any sleep?
It’s funny you mention it, because yesterday and Monday were the first two days I’ve taken off pretty much since we opened. I haven’t been getting a lot of rest, especially since the bar opened and we’ve been trying to get that off the ground. It’s a lot of hours, but it’s not something I’m not used to. I’ve been doing this a long time.
How does this experience differ from your past projects?
Coyo is a complete startup. We don’t have any infrastructure or a corporate office; it’s just me and my partners, and it’s really challenging. At Dos Caminos, even though I was there from the beginning, it was a huge company and we had all the infrastructure and everything ready to go. I’m also used to doing a much more upscale, fine-dining concept with table service and full entrées. This is the first quick service I’ve ever done and the first taqueria and fast-food concept. Every restaurant is a struggle in one way or another. If anyone says it’s ever perfect, they’re lying to you.
Do you see Miami's Mexican food trend continuing to grow?
Mexican food has been trending in the U.S. since about 2000, maybe even before then. It’s always been around in the border states, but people didn’t know how to cook the food or how to get the right ingredients. I had to hire chefs to cook Mexican food, and many had no experience at all with it. The scene in Miami is something I've never seen before. I worked in NYC; I'm from L.A., and I worked in San Francisco, and those are the hubs of the States, even the world, and I’m looking at Miami as one of those hubs. It’s growing in every single area.
In the recent past, we’ve seen multiple fine-dining places like Cantina La Veinte, and there's Taquiza on the Beach, which is a tiny spot, but they’re doing fantastic things and the chef there is incredibly passionate about Mexican food. Honestly, I love to see that because I consider myself a sort of ambassador for American food and I've been cooking Mexican for a lot of years and it's not always that well received, especially from a culinary perspective.
Why do you think that's the case?
You just don’t have many chefs coming out of culinary school and saying, "I want to cook Mexican food," because they all want to
make fois gras, and so did I when I was young. I wanted to work with Jean-Georges and Daniel Boulud, but there's only so much room for that. I think the Mexican scene in Miami is only gonna get better.
So how did you get into Mexican cuisine if you originally wanted to make foie gras with Daniel Boulud?
I grew up in a suburb of L.A. where there's a big Mexican and Hispanic population, and I grew up eating Mexican food, but I never considered cooking it when I decided to be a chef. I went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and I signed up to do an internship with Roy Yamaguchi in Hawaii. However, when it fell through, I went back to California looking for a job and ended up at Border Grill with Mary Sue Milliken. She and Rick Bayless and a few others were some of the first to do a modernized, upscale take on Mexican — and not just border Mexican but regional Mexican food.
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Still, I wasn’t convinced that was my calling and went back to New York, where I worked at Gotham Bar & Grill and other places. Then after a few years, I got a call from Border Grill asking me to be their executive chef, so I went back and it kind of just happened. I started studying and really embracing it. In order to cook food well, you have to understand the culture and the people. You have to travel there and work with people there and go to local markets and into peoples' homes because it makes you so much better at what you do.
Because of your schedule, you don't get out much (sorry!), but when you do, where are your favorite places to eat in Miami?
I love oysters and raw-bar-type stuff, and I did a restaurant in New York [El Toro Blanco] with the guys who own Lure Fishbar and the Dutch, and I'm friends with them and I like what they have. I love La Sandwicherie on the Beach, and I like Momi Ramen, which is a ramen bar in Brickell, where I live. I love Cantina La Veinte. I think the energy and the crowd is awe-striking. I think they have great margaritas, and I love the bar scene. Another favorite is Toni’s Sushi Bar on Washington Avenue. I went there last night, and it’s one of the only real traditional sushi bars in Miami. Proof Pizza & Pasta is awesome too.