Courtesy Twisted Taino
Twisted Taino will soon land in Parma
For nearly a decade, Jose Melendez has been steadily marching toward his goal of opening a Latin-inspired restaurant, overcoming setbacks with the full force of an NFL running back. To stick with the football analogy, Melendez currently is on the one-yard line, with just a few more defenders separating him from his objective.
Melendez’s first big break came when a one-time catering gig turned into a more permanent one. He soon set down roots – as tenuous as they might have been – in the banquet center of St. Mary's Byzantine Catholic Church in Old Brooklyn. Despite the pious setting, the budding chef’s monthly Latin buffets drew large, enthusiastic crowds. Those early successes matured into a steady client roster of catered weddings, birthdays and quinceañeras.
Intent on achieving his goal of opening a restaurant, Melendez enrolled in Jumpstart’s intensive 12-week business program Core City: Cleveland Impact. When “Demo Day” rolled around, Melendez failed to walk away with the big prize of $10,000, which would have gone a long way toward establishing a permanent location. Instead of giving up, he continued to perfect his craft and share his love of Latin-fusion cuisine through a never-ending calendar of pop-ups at places like Forest City Shuffleboard, La Placita and Allen Wine Bar.
When the owners of a new food hall concept put out a plea for chef-tenants to apply for a spot in their as-yet-unopened Cleveland location, Melendez answered the call. After a lengthy series of interviews and live-cooking trials, he once again felt the sting of defeat, failing to secure one of the four opening slots at Ohio City Galley. But this chapter had a plot twist; just two years later Melendez would end up inside that very building, now called Sauce the City Food Hall.
“Food saved my life,” Melendez says with the frequency of a mantra. He openly talks about his years as an unhoused person living out of his car, wearing the experience more as a badge of determination than shame. Melendez also will tell you that his professional setbacks have only made him a better chef and operator.
“The food wasn't as defined at the moment,” he says about his Galley tryout. “I understood that I had to put more work into it. After I did a couple pop-up restaurants, I was able to actually see what dishes work and what dishes didn’t.”
Visit Twisted Taino in Ohio City and you’ll see the cultures and flavors of Puerto Rico, Colombia, Mexico and various Caribbean ports of call “twisted” into delicious new ways. The eclectic menu items might not always look familiar, but the taste is undeniably authentic.
Melendez might be making the best mofongo in Cleveland, with the mash sporting the perfect consistency and just the right amount of garlic. In dishes like Margie’s Barrel ($15), that mofongo gets stuffed with a choice of garlic shrimp, guajillo-roasted pork or crispy chicharron. It is sauced and garnished with fried potato sticks for added texture. Another popular Latin dish that sticks with tradition is the pastelón ($14), often referred to as Puerto Rican lasagna. In place of pasta, the layers of meat and cheese are supported by thinly sliced plantain.
The Tripleta wrap ($13) transforms that classic Puerto Rican sandwich into a burrito bursting with tender shredded pork, chicken, ham, cheese and a trio of sauces. Like everything at Twisted Taino, the wrap appears to be apportioned to feed an entire family, packed with more than a pound of meat. Other handhelds on the menu include a traditional Cubano, a plantain-capped hamburger and soft corn-shelled tacos available with a choice of seven different seafood, meat or veggie fillings.
Melendez flexes his fusion muscles in appetizers like the empanadas ($10), a trio of crispy half-moon pastries filled with blends like zesty ground beef and cheese, juicy crawfish and alligator, and margarita pizza toppings. There’s nothing fancy about the tostones ($4), simply satisfying wheels of flattened and twice-fried plantains served with an avocado-based dipping sauce.
Puerto Rican food fans should seek out Twisted Taino for the dreamy frappes alone. Melendez whips up a dozen different fruit-filled concoctions. My very large “small” order ($4) arrived bearing a candy store’s worth of toppings like mini HoHos, cookies and marshmallows, all tucked into a cloud of whipped cream.
As for Melendez’s brass ring, the restaurant he’s been striving for since he learned how to cook was slated to open in Parma late last year. After a series of foreseeable and unforeseeable delays, the project is now slated to open in April. Predictably, Melendez is taking the delays in stride.
1400 W. 25th St., Cleveland