Fort Wayne may be far from the southern border, but a local food entrepreneur and visionary is bringing the rich flavors of Mexico to northeast Indiana.
Mercadito Taqueria's Johnny Perez
Launched earlier this year, Mercadito Taqueria
—whose name is a nod to the neighborhood corner stores found in Mexico—is a taco food truck. Its founder, Johnny Perez, is building on his own cultural and ethnic heritage while bringing a modern twist to the menu.
Perez's parents were born in Mexico, and he came of age in Los Angeles. Over the years, his mother and grandmother made an impression on him with their cooking. So, in that way, Mercadito Taqueria is a love letter to his matriarchs.
Perez is also not shy in talking about how his work in the Fort Wayne restaurant industry shaped his trajectory. In 2015, he was working at BakerStreet Steakhouse
. This was around the time that plans for its sister restaurant, The Hoppy Gnome
, were in the works, Perez says.
He saw an opportunity and went for it, which led to another key move.
“I ended up being able to be part of the management team and was (at the Hoppy Gnome) for almost three years,” he says. “Then right around that time was when Proximo
was coming on the scene."
Mercadito Taqueria is redefining casual Mexican fare.
, Spanish for "next," opened as an upscale, Latin-fare restaurant in downtown Fort Wayne in the summer of 2018. Perez says he considered applying for a back-of-the-house position there, but he ended up applying for the restaurant's chef position instead, to get a more well-rounded perspective on the industry. And when he applied, he was successful.
But being head chef still left him wanting to do more professionally. His wife picked up on that sentiment and encouraged him to think big.
“It was around Thanksgiving of last year when my wife said, “You know, you’ve done the front-of-house thing. You've done your back house thing, and you can keep doing it and still be content, but you won't be extremely happy.”
So Perez decided to pursue what might make him extremely happy.
Mercadito's pinto bean falafel taco with fried garlic tahini, and pickled red onions.
When he and his wife decided to pursue their options, they thought a food truck enterprise would be best because the model has been successful in northeast Indiana. (There are more than two dozen food trucks in operation, according to a directory curated by Visit Fort Wayne
So they decided to give it a go, and he left Proximo in April 2019. Along with tacos, Mercadito serves its signature Pachola Burger inspired by the In-N-Out burger and the Krabby Patty.
Today, Mercadito Taqueria is a family affair, including a "core team" of Perez’s wife, sisters, and brother. You can find his truck posted up near venues downtown, as well as at events around the city.
In just a few months of operation, he's already earned a reputation for fresh and inspired Mexican cuisine.
“We wanted to keep things, I would say, familiar and approachable with a core menu that's really authentic, but with a fresh perspective,” he explains. “And we didn't want to just do peppers and onions. We have our falafel taco, which is definitely inspired by Mediterranean-style food.”
Perez says accommodating diets, like veganism, helps him maintain a creative spark, too.
“That’s the best way to look at it, to not get complacent in your day-to-day operations,” he says.
He’s not one to rest on his laurels. In fact, he’s already looking to the next phase of the business. His long-term goal is to have a brick-and-mortar establishment. His vision: “A full-scale, casual, upscale Mexican restaurant with full bar service."
As the saying goes, location is everything, and Perez is confident that the Summit City is poised to support such a concept.
“Working to open two downtown restaurants has really broadened my perspective on how you can make an impact for a new brand,” he says. “I think Fort Wayne is the perfect place for it.”