Sean Brock spent six months learning to make tortillas. At least, that’s what he told CP food critic Robert Moss back in October 2014, when ‘Brocko Bell’ opened its doors on East Bay. “The tortilla is like Husk cornbread,” Brock said. “This is everything to us. Once you’ve had a properly made one, you really can’t eat anything else.”
Five years later, the dedication to tortilla making is still very much in hand. But there have been many shifts, transitions, and evolutions — for both the restaurant and its hospitality group, Neighborhood Dining Group.
In 2015, Minero moved (and nearly tripled in size) from 155 East Bay St. to McCrady’s event space upstairs. Brock loosened ties with Minero, Husk, McCrady’s, and now-shuttered McCrady’s Tavern in 2018 — the same year the Mexican joint added a burger night to the rotation. New platters also made their way onto the menu, with a burrito bowl option joining the chart-topping grilled wings. The restaurant is now closed between lunch and dinner service, and they have a separate “Celiac-safe menu.”
Most recently, as Moss wrote in his July 2019 piece on Neighborhood Dining Group, “No press release or Eater post announced in June that executive chef Wesley Grubbs had left Minero.”
Minero’s new exec chef Alex Yellan — who served as Minero’s sous chef from 2014-2016 — says the transition was smooth. And quick. “It was a five day turnaround from when Wes texted me that he was going to put in his notice, then I was in here meeting with [NDG president] David Howard.”
It was easy for Yellan to say yes. Five years ago he moved to Charleston from NYC so he could work in this new Brock brainchild — he’s been passionate about Mexican cuisine for years, working at DF Mexican restaurant in Portland, Ore. and Empellon Taqueria in N.Y., in addition to helping open a slew of other, non-Mexican joints. He’s spent months traveling across Mexico and Central and South America; “It’s just such a cultural and culinary challenge — it’s an infinite goal. And being away from it makes it seem that much more exciting.”
For the past two years, Yellan has been able to stoke his creative fires as chef de cuisine at restaurant Tu. But now he’s back with his first Lowcountry love, a once much-hyped spot that has, over the past five years, found a steady groove.
“I was always surprised we didn’t sell more burritos and now it’s a full-on machine at this point,” says Yellan. “It’s interesting to see where people’s comfort zone is and what they’re drawn to ordering — it feels a little more secure.”
Yellan says this is the first time he’s worked at a restaurant that is this … mature. There’s something about a brand-new idea that thrills, pulls the groggy-eyed chef out of bed in the wee hours, and draws him into a fluorescent-lit kitchen, ripe with possibility.
There are long days and ceaseless migraines and the “do we have enough money to even keep the doors open?” insomnia, but the hype keeps him going, and the staff on their toes. It’s a whole other ballgame, though, to massage the kinks out of a fairly well oiled machine. Especially for the ever-curious chef.
“If you just come in and get the burrito and chips and guac … regulars are what help us thrive,” says Yellan. “Once all that buzz settles down and you’re not a new restaurant, you’re functioning at a comfortable albeit busy pace … it’s interesting to be in that spectrum of things.”
For Yellan, that ranges from concession — the burrito bowl and a kid’s menu — to innovation — octopus tacos and flying ants.
“The burrito bowl is a whole other animal,” laughs Yellan. “That wasn’t there when I was here previously, and you know people love it. I think a younger me would’ve been much more judgmental about that just because I would’ve been like, ‘Why are we doing this? This isn’t Chipotle, we don’t want to be Chipotle.'”
“But you know, there was no kid’s menu when I was here either — an idealistic line cook might be like, ‘Oh I don’t want to cook buttery pasta!’ But I don’t care — we will give a kid whatever they want to make sure a parent as a guest can come in here and get what they want.”
Does buttery pasta dilute the thrill? Maybe. But Minero, Brock or no Brock, bowl or no bowl, has not faded into being a ‘whatever you want’ cafe.
In March 2019, Food & Wine named them one of the 50 best cocktail bars in the U.S.; “The decidedly Mexican-inspired cocktail menu has the requisite margarita and sangria, but also less-expected creations like El Espectro: rum, chile, pineapple, and lemon oleo-saccharum. All drinks pair well with the restaurant’s stellar tacos.” In February, the Daily Meal named Minero the best Mexican restaurant in the state.
“The last thing I want to be is comfortable,” says Yellan. “We can get further and further ahead — that’s what excites me. I don’t know what all those things are yet but I know we can do them.”
Creating and maintaining a successful concept means doubling down on what works — Yellan says they spend the extra dough to make sure they’re only serving Carolina Gold rice and the best flour tortillas they can find at the Ladson flea — and playing around a bit when you can.
“You can plan all you want but then there are these happy accidents, like this octopus in the freezer that needed to be used up, there’s this forced creativity. It’s about being mindful but there will always be things kicking around that are leftover or extra and what can we do with that?”
Yellan says that octopus happened to pair perfectly with the Mexican herb papalo, which local farm Spade and Clover had at the ready. The herb has a very strong, unique flavor (reminiscent of cilantro or rue) on its own — “To apply that to an octopus taco, to use this really special ingredient even if it doesn’t register as something unique and special, I just want people to think it’s delicious.”
The chef is careful not to dive head first into any dish, as tempting as it may be. From the burrito to an order of flying ants to the octo taco, Yellan says nothing is sacred.
“Having worked in so many Mexican restaurants, I aggressively want to push things that aren’t tacos — you can make a beautiful dish of grilled baby octopus, not make it too fussy, sell it for $11 or $12 as a warm appetizer dish or we can sell two tacos for the same price and get it in front of people — dealing with that equation, that is what is taking up my brain space at the moment.”