There is a scene in the Disney Pixar film Ratatouille that Carlos Melendez finds very meaningful.
As Remy the rat, the star of the film, nibbles a piece of cheese and a ripe strawberry, the screen fills with colorful squiggles in an effort to present visually what he’s tasting.
When he bites the two foods together, however, the background erupts in a fireworks display.
Melendez, Owner of Coyote Crossing in Conshohocken, had a very similar culinary experience.
“I was born in Mexico City,” he relates. “I left home when I was 14 years old. I found myself being kind of homeless for a while.
“I was in Central America, and I walked into the back of a hotel, in the kitchen. I told the chef, ‘I’m so hungry. I’ll do anything. Just give me something.’
“So he threw me an onion. And I literally – I took a bite of the onion and all the flavor just exploded in my mouth. And I thought it was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten.”
That early exposure to bold flavors “set [his] palate” and opened the door to a culinary career.
“The chef had me clean and cook and gave me a place to sleep,” Melendez says. “I literally slept in the kitchen. It was my first job.
“It was good because I was a kid. Because of the labor laws, kids aren’t supposed to be able to work.
“But the kitchen’s always hidden. So it became one of those niches.
“And I learned that wherever I would go, there are always restaurants; there are always places to eat where I could find a job.”
Melendez eventually came to the U.S.
“I ran a Spanish restaurant in Philadelphia that was called Tapas. That was 1993-1994. And I got a national award as one of the best Spanish restaurants in the U.S.
“So that brought me attention from the investor here at Coyote Crossing. He said, ‘You know, you should own your own place.’
“I designed and built this with him. And I opened this and eventually, he sold me the business.”
That was 20 years ago.
Coyote Crossing has seen wholesale changes in its neighborhood surroundings.
“It was a very different neighborhood,” Melendez says. “There were a lot of abandoned warehouses, left over from when this part of Conshohocken was basically part of the steel industry.”
The addition of a Mexican restaurant in this section of the borough wasn’t exactly a welcome development for the neighbors. Melendez says that he endured some rough treatment at first, including the occasional animal carcass tossed on his roof.
But according to Melendez, they “…eventually learned that I wanted to create a respectful, authentic Mexican restaurant, to create an experience here. Little by little, they noticed that I was very responsible with my business. And I became part of the neighborhood.”
The closest neighbor is only a few feet from the Melendez’ property line, but he quickly points out that all is well. “We have them over every now and then for sangria,” he laughs.
Part of the Coyote Crossing experience is, of course, the food. The other is the ambiance. Onto the original 1830s building (a former residence), Coyote Crossing has added an addition with high ceilings, natural lighting and a cozy fireplace.
Adjacent to that is a Mezcal bar that opens to a patio. Seating there in the spring and summer is very popular.
“You can’t just put tables outside and create the right environment,” Melendez explains. “We used Mother Nature; we planted and cultivated that space. Those trees,” he points out, “they have been here for 20 years. I planted them myself,” Melendez concludes, smiling with satisfaction.