At the end of a two-hour interview and hangout at The Gastro Grill, the owner, hostess and I started chatting about tattoos and how to wear red lipstick.
Those things don’t have much to do with this new restaurant, except that it’s an example of the down-to-earth vibe at this place in Old Town Clovis, where almost everybody is family (and lots of them have tattoos).
The Gastro Grill, at 760 Pollasky Ave., had its grand opening in mid-January and has been packed ever since. Plenty of people know the 3-year-old food truck of the same name. The truck will ride on, but for now the buzz is all about the restaurant.
The menu at the restaurant is different from the truck’s, with the exception of the popular filet mignon tacos. You’ll also find a bone marrow burger, a salad designed to look like a historic ship (more on that in a moment) and blackened chicken cooked in a cast iron skillet and served with bacon-jalapeño cream sauce.
It’s upscale comfort food with a creative streak made by Reyes Chacon, a chef and former backhoe operator. He and his wife, Debbi, own the restaurant with her brother Greg Wilson and his wife, Marci.
And they’re not kidding about the mostly family thing. The staff includes a daughter, three nieces and the boyfriend of one, a nephew and a goddaughter. They hired only four people out of the 19-person staff they hadn’t met before.
“Anybody who’s not related, they feel related,” says Debbie Chacon.
The Gastro Grill is a gastropub, a place that serves beer and specializes in high-quality food. It’s a new term for some customers who occasionally say things like “so it’s ‘gastrointestinal?’ ”
To make it clear, Chacon posted her definition of the word on the wall in big letters. It reads: “Gastronomy: The art or science of good eating.” Another term they’re introducing locals to is pot de creme. It’s pronounced “po-de-krem” with that throaty French sound on the last syllable (though I’m sure in Clovis you could get away without using the weird French sound). The desserts are like a cross between a crème brûlée and a custard served in little dishes with rotating flavors like chocolate with bourbon-soaked cherries.
Chef Reyes likes to take simple food and turn it into “a beautiful thing.”
“A taco is a taco, of course, but I just bring it up a little bit,” he says.
He was talking about the filet mignon tacos, but that could also describe the way Chacon soaks shrimp in Firestone’s 805 blonde ale to make the drunken shrimp tacos.
Perhaps the most creative dish is the Queen Mary salad. It was inspired by the chef’s visit to the historic Queen Mary ship docked in Long Beach. During a tour, photos of entrees on the walls of the captain’s kitchen sparked something in Chacon. They used the limited meats that were available during the Depression era, but dressed them up “making the plates look really pretty,” he says.
So that’s what he did with the Queen Mary salad at Gastro Grill. The plate has three hollowed-out baguettes perched on end to mimic the ship’s three tall smokestacks. Salad greens stuffed into them and seared salmon and shrimp soaked in 805 beer are on the plate with a housemade champagne vinaigrette.
One dish getting lots of attention is the bone marrow burger. The plate comes with an herb-roasted beef bone that’s been split down the middle. Diners are encouraged to scoop the jellylike marrow out of the bone and onto their burger or bun.
And if you have a dog, they’ll give you a to-go box to take the bone home.
“Why let it go to waste? That’s a dog’s best friend right there,” Debbi Chacon says.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, diners will also find vegan and vegetarian options on the menu. Their baker, Adriana Deleon, created a gluten-free burger bun and tinkered with it until it didn’t taste like it’s gluten-free, Chacon says. Deleon also occasionally has desserts like brownies that are vegan and gluten-free.
Although the restaurant doesn’t have beer on tap, several craft beers and wines are available.
The long hours of running a restaurant are a return to days past for the chef. He graduated from the California Culinary Academy (which is now Le Cordon Bleu) in San Francisco and worked at restaurants around town. He helped open Fig Garden’s The Patio Cafe back when he cooked on a grill that was literally on a patio in front of the restaurant.
But he got burned out after years in the restaurant industry and took a job as a heavy equipment operator for the city of Fresno. For 19 years, he’d work 10-hour days using backhoes to pull out concrete to make places handicapped accessible.
The couple have run Chacon’s Catering for 13 years, doing weddings and other events. Along the way, the chef quit his job as a backhoe operator for the city and his wife quit her job doing accounting for a law school to focus on the catering and the truck.
Catering is the chef’s true love. In fact, they rented the space on Pollasky planning to use the kitchen to prep their catering meals, not to run a restaurant.
But somehow it morphed into a restaurant.
“He’s still tired,” Debbi Chacon says of her husband. “This is a lot harder than working for the city.”
It would be impossible for the couple to manage the Gastro Grill food truck and the restaurant, so some new faces will be running the truck.
Justin and Dennis Carter will serve meals at the truck’s visits to Gazebo Gardens beer garden and other places in March.
Between dashes around the dining room prepping for lunch, Justin, a former waiter at a French restaurant in Southern California, talked about how going to school and then “guess what, I met Reyes and Debbi … and fell in love.”
His husband – a former personal chef for singer Brandy in Southern California who is now a special education teacher in the Valley – brought in a dark chocolate Bundt cake. It’s not clear how much the cake played a role, but the pair got hired on. They’re not related to the Chacons, but “just became one with the Gastro family,” Debbi Chacon says.