You can call them the Tres Amigos, for they ride high together again guiding a hot new restaurant in downtown Fairfield that has local patrons packing the place for their provocative fare and inviting atmosphere.
The trio is Mario Fontana of Southport, Luis Chavez of Norwalk, and Michael Young of Trumbull, and they are the caballeros holding the reins of in Fairfield.
Fontana met with Patch on a recent Saturday to share the tale about his rise in the restaurant world and how their collaboration came about.
Born and raised in New York, Fontana spent a lot of time in Miami after college, where he was first bitten by the Cuban/Latin culture. Keeping that experience in the back of his mind, he returned to New York and opened up The Foredeck.
Several other restaurant ventures followed over a five-year period before he was approached to become the VP of a Toronto-based restaurant group. He moved to the Canadian city and opened a dozen four- and five-hundred seat restaurants. "It was the group mission to open large restaurants with different concepts," he said.
Fontana met his future wife—a fashion designer—there and, because of her occupation, they moved back to New York. In 1997, they moved to Southport, where he opened the restaurant Habana. "I had been carrying the Latin/Cuban bug with me," he said.
"Habana was a shot at conservative Connecticut culture, and it happened to be timely. We were first in the state with mojitos, cigars at the bar, and Nuevo Latino cuisine. It was an instant success, with many imitators, and a great run -- 10 years."
Young was the chef at Habana and, when Fontana opened up Ocean Drive restaurant in South Norwalk around 2002, Young came over. At the same time, Chavez took chef duties at Habana. "We were working together quite a lot and liked the collaboration," Fontana said.
At one point, Young and Chavez moved on to open up on Main Street in Norwalk. They had a very loyal, cult-like following, according to Fontana. They called the cuisine Venezuelan beach food, though it meandered around South and Central America, where Chavez is originally from, Fontana added.
About a year ago, Fontana found the Bodega space. It was formerly a deli and he started the process of re-planning it. Young and Chavez had kept in touch -- they would go out together in New York and Brooklyn, particularly to taco bars they found interesting.
"I said, 'Why don't we do this together?'" Fontana said. “Bodega was a natural with my past experience and with what they were doing at Valencia. We’re not traditional Mexican. In fact, we try not to define our cuisine at all. We shoot from the hip."
Bodega opened quietly this past June and people started to discover it, especially through social media channels, and the business gained attention quickly. "A good percentage of people that come enjoy the guacamole, made fresh to order and served in molcajetes (a traditional stone goblet-like preparation dish)," Fontana said. "The Bodegarita, our signature margarita, is hand-crafted to order using only fresh lime juice, top-shelf tequila and triple plum, and sweetened with blue agave syrup."
Antojitos, of which the guacamole is a part, range in price from $7-$9. Tacos, at $4 each, include Gambas—seared ancho chili shrimp, cucumber-mango salsa and chipotle mayo—and Americano—seasoned ground beef, manchego cheese, salsa rusa and a crispy taco.
In the Platos, or main dish, category, the Seared Scallops are popular -- with roasted corn, fresh tomato and edamame -- and Camarones "Enchilados" -- spicy shrimp, mango-jicama salad and arroz con crema mexicana. Platos range from $14 to $16. Nothing on the menu is over $16.
Bodega's specials are often dishes with which the trio is experimenting, and they will add those that are popular to the main menu.
Fontana said a number of things, besides the food, make Bodega stand out.
"The staff is not working inside a rigid box, and they’re good people, naturally upbeat," he said. "We make all our cocktails by hand—no soda guns or mixes. And we offer 75 top-shelf tequilas."
Throwing down the gauntlet, Fontana said, "We want to tempt the palette, get people to experiment with new flavors and get them outside of their comfort zones."
Bodega Taco Bar, at 1700 Post Road, Fairfield, is open 7 days a week, for lunch and dinner, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Monday thru Saturday, open at 11:30 a.m., Sunday at 11 a.m. Kitchen closes 10 p.m. on weeknights, 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Phone: 203-292-9590. Web: www.BodegaTacoBar.com