Redefining beer and tacos
Servers pulled beer after beer from the taps while the diners lingered happily on the patio, especially, at the Hoppy Gnome this summer and on every nice day so far this fall.
The new downtown hotspot pulled through its opening weeks with the usual challenges, plus plenty of praise, and it goes into fall and winter with the confidence that the arts campus side of downtown has another solid choice for stopping for a drink or a bite to eat, thanks to the group that also owns and runs BakerStreet Steaks, Seafood, Spirits.
The Hoppy Gnome’s appeal starts with its punny name, which was the product of a spontaneous all-night work session once the partners developing the idea had a sobering realization that their working title lacked something.
“It dawned on us we really couldn’t open a restaurant and call it ‘Beer and Tacos,'” said Hoppy Gnome managing partner James Khan. For the next several hours, unfortunately, “everything we came up with was just ridiculously stupid.”
By the wee hours of the night, he remembers, he had been hitting the next button on a restaurant name generator website for about an hour and a half when the name Hoppy Dragon popped up. They liked it but thought it sounded like a beer and Chinese food place.
“We laughed about that, but then we thought about Hoppy Gnome because my partner Pete likes gnomes. Who doesn’t love a gnome?” Khan said. He immediately emailed the idea out to all the partners and managers for feedback. Somehow, even though the first feedback he got was “it’s not moronic,” he said, the name passed muster and is now official.
“People will remember it, and from there it’s up to us to define it,” he said.
That definition starts with the establishment of a from-scratch kitchen focused on fresh ingredients and the menu focused on (but not limited to) tacos. Tacos are the delivery system for cuisine-style foods inside the tortillas, which include taqueria-style tacos alongside duck confit, pork belly cooked sous vide and Korean short rib. Salads, appetizers, tortas and desserts round out the menu.
The spirits menu won a lot of early attention for the craft beers, but the wine list is curated exactly the same way, Khan said, with an open attitude to who makes it and where it is from and a welcome for whatever is good.
The public reception of the craft beers has been gratifying, which is perhaps not surprising in a town like Fort Wayne, which, as Khan said, “has a lot of beer pubs and good ones.”
A few of the selections have lingered in stock for a while, he said, but others have sold out in as little as 30 hours because they were known and that popular. It’s not unusual for the 40-beer list published on a Friday to have eight changes by Monday, he said, which can be frustrating for people trying to select a beer to order, and is certainly a challenge for servers who need to be informed and helpful to customers. Maybe it’s best to just sit at the bar if beer is the focus of your visit.
The menu has an element of continuous change, too, because it will be updated every three or four months. The first update for this fall added the Mexican street-style steak taco and the California-style mahi fish taco to the menu, for example, and entrees began showing up on the menu and as specials.
“We have a smaller menu, which gives us the flexibility to be really proactive at changing things,” Khan said. “We can’t change it as often as the beer menu changes, but we don’t want people to get stuck in a rut.”
The space itself will continue to evolve, too. Khan said they are looking for an effective bug screen that will enable them to keep the wall of windows on the Berry Street patio side open, bringing the patio experience into the whole space, and they’re looking for the best sort of heaters to extend the patio season.
“Living in the Midwest,” he said, “you want to be outdoors as much as possible when the weather is close to being nice.
“Those are the first seven tables to fill up and the last to empty.”
203 E. Berry St.
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Specialties: Rotating craft beer menu, plus unique spins on tacos.
Hoppy Gnome’s Salmon & Shrimp Tapas
3 ounces Jail Island
2 jumbo shrimp, peeled, tail on
4 ounces mixed fresh vegetables
¾ cup Drake’s tempura batter mix
12-ounces of Oktoberfest beer
Hoppy Gnome fire-roasted tomatillo salsa (or your favorite salsa)
1. Heat a sauté pan to a high temperature. Add a bit of oil and sea salt, then add salmon tapas pieces. Cook to desired doneness, allowing the exterior to obtain a crispy texture. We recommend the salmon to be served medium rare to medium; however, cook to personal preference.
2. Combine 12 ounces of tempura batter mix with bottle of Oktoberfest beer and mix well. If the mixture is too thick, add water to lighten. Coat shrimp by dipping into the beer batter mix. Shake the shrimp to allow excess batter to fall off.
3. Place gently into a fryer at 350 degrees and fry for 2 minutes until crispy. Or use a sauté pan with a generous portion of vegetable oil to allow the entire piece of shrimp to be covered and cooked evenly.
4. Cut your favorite mixed vegetables into bite-sized slices and sticks. (We used sweet potatoes, red peppers, green onions, yellow squash and white onions.) Saute in oil with a little bit of sea salt and black pepper until crisp-tender, 2-3 minutes.
5. Place shrimp and salmon on top of vegetables on your plate. Garnish with your favorite salsa.
First appeared in the November 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.