Tapas serves up serious Spanish cuisine
By Sue Ellen Ross Post-Tribune correspondent September 21, 2012 3:24PM
Chef and owner Ulises Gomez is shown at the Tapas Cafe in Merrillville, Ind. Featured (from lower front center) is red velvet cake, paella, pear salad with sweet balsamic glaze, pot stickers and a mango gazpacho. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
IF YOU GO
◆ Tapas Café
◆ 2486 Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30), Merrillville,
◆ Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through
Saturday and from noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Updated: October 25, 2012 6:06AM
Ulises Gomez’s first kitchen experience took place when he was 8 years old and living in Mexico City. His mother wasn’t near the kitchen and he was hungry, so he decided to make scrambled eggs.
“I didn’t know anything, so I just cracked them into a hot pan,” the owner and chef of the new Tapas Café in Merrillville recalled with a laugh. “They didn’t turn out very good; I really burned them.”
The inquisitive boy was puzzled and wanted to know what he had done wrong. After his mother gave him instructions to make scrambled eggs, his interest in cooking was piqued. This was the moment the Merrillville resident decided that his future would lie in the kitchen.
Gomez came to the United States 14 years ago. He has worked at many restaurants in the area as he made his way up the kitchen ladder.
He also took his Mexican food on the road, serving as a vendor at area festivals and fairs.
“It was finally time for me to open my own restaurant. This had always been my dream,” he said of the new eatery which opened the doors three months ago. “But I didn’t want to compete with all the Mexican restaurants in the area — there are so many of them.”
Instead, his menu is “Serious Spanish Cuisine,” as diners are informed by the large sign over the entrance door.
Offerings include appetizers such as molletes, a Spanish-style pizza bread; and Mayan potstickers, filled with roasted pork and pan crisped.
From the entree menu, customers can select from items such as Aztek chocolate chicken (with zesty chocolate sauce); or salmon saffron (Norwegian grilled salmon with saffron sauce).
And of course, the tapas. This list includes seafood salpicon salad, patatas ali-oli (red potatoes with garlic aioli), and Spanish-style potato croquettes. Paella is offered as an entrée with chicken, steak or shrimp.
“Tapas Café is a place for food lovers,” Gomez said. “We have something for everybody.”
Soft, relaxing fusion music plays in the background of the dining room, which is adorned with Mayan masks and a large wall decoration of a Spanish soldier. Gomez has had the latter for many years, always thinking it would be the first decoration put up in his future restaurant.
And it was.
Wife Rosalva Bera and sister-in-law Sujehi Gomez round out the staff; more will be added as the business grows.
The new entrepreneur has no formal training; he learned everything on the job as he climbed the kitchen ladder. Gomez carefully observed not only the specifics of running a kitchen, but also the management skills needed for the owner of a successful business.
Now he is putting everything to the test in his 45-seat dining room.
New customer Sharon Niles, of Merrillville, had just returned from vacationing in Las Vegas and didn’t have time to restock her refrigerator and pantry, when she saw the Tapas Café sign from U.S. 30 in Merrillville.
It was dinnertime and Niles decided to risk trying a new business in the neighborhood. “I like trying new things, so I’m taking the chance,” she said as she waited for her order to go. “I want to surprise my husband.”
When the order arrived, Niles just had to take a peek at the top bag — and was glad she did.
“This (pear) salad looks beautiful,” she said, as she popped open the container. “I’ve already circled more things on the menu I want to try next time — I’ll be back.”