Chef Mikey Carrasco Brings a Taste of Texas to STL

Mikey Carrasco brings a bit of Texas to Missouri in his cooking. - MONICA MILEUR
Mikey Carrasco brings a bit of Texas to Missouri in his cooking.

Growing up in Texas informed almost all of Mikey Carrasco's thoughts on food: The briskets he would spend all day smoking with his grandfather and uncle, the garden his mom kept that included everything from chickens to rabbits, the drive-thru culture where he could get a whole charcoal chicken and sides from the comfort of his car.

However, if one experience stands out to him the most, it's the day trips he would take with his mom across the border from El Paso to Juarez, Mexico.

"My mom knows a little bit of Spanish, and one of her favorite things to do was to go over and haggle over wool rugs, Mexican vanilla and all the things you can't get here," Carrasco recalls. "We'd go into restaurants and bars, to taco carts, into these big mercados where they had piñatas hanging and fresh produce. There'd be people sitting outside making tortillas, older women shaving cactuses and a whole pig chopped up somewhere for carnitas. As a young kid, all these smells and visuals were intriguing and really got me into food."

Carrasco tried to translate that passion for food into a job cooking — albeit a humble gig at the local Burger King. However, he had such a knack for customer service and working the computer system that they wouldn't let him into the kitchen.

That opportunity came instead at a sub shop in Austin, where he did the prep work and helped to fill orders. In his spare time, he'd come home and experiment in the kitchen, learning how to barbecue, cook beans and perfect the art of Spanish rice.

"I'd cook rice three times a week in every different way I could think of to see which way was the best," says Carrasco. "I was always trying to make it better."

The opportunity to perfect his Mexican cooking in a professional setting would come much further north of the border. His friend Christian Ethridge moved to St. Louis from Texas and needed to find cooks to help fill the ranks at the Baileys Restaurants commissary. Though Carrasco had never done that sort of cooking professionally, Ethridge knew his work ethic and offered him the gig.

Carrasco moved to St. Louis sight unseen and began working at the commissary with responsibilities ranging from butchery to braising and smoking the meat to all types of prep work. The experience helped him hone his chops enough that when he and Ethridge decided to branch out on their own, they had the skills and confidence to do so.

Their effort, Taco Circus, represented the simple food they'd grown up on in Texas and made a name for the pair in town. Inexpensive, high quality and good, the restaurant became a success, one of the top places in the city to get Tex-Mex and breakfast tacos.

Carrasco later left Taco Circus to join the Wheelhouse in Clayton, in search of both a change and a way to expand his cooking skills. When that restaurant shuttered, he landed at a few other concepts around town, including the Flying Saucer, Broadway Oyster Bar, Las Palmas, and Grace Meat + Three.

Carrasco has just been tapped to be the executive chef at Copia downtown, an opportunity that will have him not only running the kitchen at its original location but will also see him helping guide its expansion into Clayton. At his most upscale kitchen to date, Carrasco is thrilled for the chance to stretch himself and grow as a chef. He's especially excited about digging into the restaurant's seafood offerings, even though he'll have a hard time topping the catfish dinners he enjoyed back home.

"My friend's grandma had a catfish place in Austin, and when I was a kid, he and I would go there on weekends and do chores for her," Carrasco recalls. "She'd cook us these whole catfishes that to this day, I think about. I can't walk by a catfish place and not eat it."

Carrasco took a break from the kitchen to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, the importance of music and why lasers make everything better.

What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I am very abstract yet methodical. I move from one thought to another impetuously. Also I’m very bad at showing my work on paper. A lot of times I fail to speak about what I’m up to when I’m lost in my thoughts. My algebra teachers hated it. I had the right answers and never showed my work. I hate talking about how to fix things; I’m more of a hands-on person.

What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Art and music. I’m a visual-thinking person. My plans always start off as a screenplay in my head. The juxtaposition of everyday people and items is beautiful art to me. When I’m done at a restaurant I pop my ear buds in as I walk out the back door. Cue Iggy Pop "Passenger" as I commute on the 70 Grand bus and mingle with the folks in the city. Old and young. Life is art and I live the life of an artist. As my friend Sergio Nakayoshi [Mango Peruvian Cuisine] says, Vida de la Artista!

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
It would be super cool if I could always know exactly what day of the week it was. Oh, and lasers. I wish I had lasers.

What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
Seeing the immigrant- and female-owned restaurants get their spot in the sun. The fact that Lona Luo of Lonas Lil Eats was nominated for a James Beard award is so cool! Celebrating diversity is such a beautiful thing and important for growth in the dining scene. Shout outs to Natasha Bahrami and her mother Hamishe from Cafe Natasha, Kelli McMullen (general manager and sommelier DeMun Oyster Bar) and Angela Ortmann (STL Winegirl) for their efforts this year in bringing this forward.

What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
Whole chicken al carbon (cooked with charcoal) spots with drive-thrus. Whole chickens, sides of roasted corn, rice, beans, corn tortillas, smoked sweet onions, super spicy salsa and Mexican sodas. This is probably one of my favorite things on the planet. It also could be my last meal.

Who is your St. Louis food crush?
The farmers responsible for cultivating the ingredients we are so blessed to use. Mike from Root N Holler pig farm. David from Bohlen farms. Brett Hilling from Foodroof.

Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
It’s really hard to pick one. Dakota Kolb (Quincy Street Bistro) is a rising-star chef. He cooks with his heart and has nothing but great intention. He was the sous chef at my first beer dinner and I love watching him grow as a chef. He's an all-around great person and knows his way around a kitchen. He's one of the sharpest knifes in the block. Sous chef Daniel Poss of Grace Meat + Three. He is from Nashville just making his way in the dining scene here. He has taught me a lot since I have been there and really enjoy his style of cooking. A nice blend of classic and new techniques with great fundamental flavor understanding. Also, Steve Suarez at Las Palmas in Maplewood. He and his mother own the restaurant. They are my previous employers and I consider them family. Steve is always pushing forward in his cooking. I can feel the energy and flavor he imparts into his food. When you go there, ask about the specials and don’t be afraid to try something different. You won’t be underwhelmed. Right now that’s my top three.

Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Citrus fruit. It accentuates other flavors, and naturally preserves and brightens food. There are so many health advantages to eating citrus as well. I’m a jovial person, and citrus flavors remind me of me.

If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I would probably be booking bands and planning festivals. I have a background in that stuff and I love doing it. Running a festival is a lot like being a chef. Everything has to be in its place when it’s time for the showdown. It takes great foresight, budgeting and planning. You must stay calm, communicate concisely and assertively. Pay attention to details be quick on your feet and always have a plan B. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Be genuine. Be kind. Shout outs to French Smith IV in Austin Texas.

Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Spices that have been on the shelf too long. They need to be fresh. When they get old and dry out too much they lose their flavor and just taste like wood chips. Also I do not like pre-mixed spice blends. It’s almost impossible to finesse a dish just right using pre-made blends. You have to think about everything on the plate as well as in the glass when spicing your dishes.

What is your after-work hangout?
Ballpark Village! Duh.

What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with Doritos. And I am much more likely to crush a gas station hot dog than a mediocre $12 sandwich. Shout out to the hot dogs at Sams. My grandma Matilda Carrasco was a Mexican American and cooked my favorite Mexican food of all time, but her favorite food was bratwurst. She taught us all so much about history and culture and knew what she loved. I believe memories are the best flavor you could ever serve. I'm in this for the memories. Old and new.

What would be your last meal on earth?
Oysters. Cave-aged cheddar. Toast. Ripe avocados. Fresh fruit. Sour beer.

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