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Friday, December 3, 2021

Comal, a Taco-Centric Family Restaurant, Coming to Fort Thomas

Leticia and Michael Messmer's restaurant Comal will offer tacos that combine influences, not only from Texas and Mexico, but also from Italian and French cuisine.

by Robin Gee

A new restaurant, and restaurant concept, is taking shape in Fort Thomas. Comal (Spanish for fire pit or griddle), will be a family-style taco restaurant with a menu that draws upon the combined experiences, interests and travels of the owners.

Michael Messmer and Leticia Messmer moved from Houston to Fort Thomas to realize their dream of owning and operating a community-focused family restaurant that features food that is a combination of influences served in what they call a "hand-held" format, namely tacos.

Comal will occupy the space in the Hiland Building, 18 North Fort Thomas Avenue, vacated by Colonel’s Kitchen and Catering. They will start with a carryout-only format and plan to open by February 2022. 


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A deep and winding path to Fort Thomas


Michael Messmer is originally from Edgewood, Kentucky, and Leticia Messmer said she calls both Texas and Mexico City home. They both have extensive experience in the restaurant and culinary industry and met when Leticia was a trainer for Boston Market visiting Edgewood to open a new location.

The path to owning their first restaurant has been long but rich. Michael Messmer said he has more than 30 years in the business but counts 25 as a career chef. It is the culinary-inspired travels through that career that has brought the couple to Fort Thomas to open their own place where they can fuse his culinary influences from all over the world into something unique and new, he said.

Since leaving Kentucky, the couple has worked in Florida, California’s wine country and even a short time in Mexico, before landing in Houston, Texas, where they were before deciding to head back to Kentucky to be nearer to Michael’s family and to open their restaurant.

Family and community is a central theme. The Messmers have a 13-year-old daughter and wanted to build a business in a place with a strong sense of community where they could put down roots.

Leticia, who also teaches primary school in Newport, said "We wanted a beautiful neighborhood for my daughter to grow up in. We knew it was a good school, and we just love it here. We love the seasons and we’re very happy."



On the culinary road


The couple’s travels helped deepen Michael’s experiences with cooking a variety of different cuisines. In addition to traditional Mexican and Texan dishes, he gained experience with other Latin American flavors picked up in Florida, and his stint in Napa Valley sparked his interest in Italian and French techniques and foods.

"I think that’s when we were most excited learning about wine and food and pairings," said Leticia. "That’s when we began to dream someday to be able to infuse all these ingredients. Then, we moved to Florida with every type of international food you could think of. That’s where I think he acquired a more Latino seasoning with the French and Italian that he’s learned. Now he has all these ingredients under his belt and that makes his food so exciting.”

She said her husband is a bit too humble and noted that in California, he was voted Chef of the Year at Copia, an event started by Robert Modavi and Julia Child. There he worked for award-winning chef Thomas Keller.

The Messmers also have worked for larger food operations including their most recent stop in Houston where they worked at the flagship store for Central Market, what Michael describes as a "high-end clientele, culinary gastronomic emporium." A division of the central Texas grocery chain HEB, Central Market offered food and catering with dishes built from specialty ingredients.

As they were gaining experiences, the pull of their dream to put what they’d learned into practice and build a very community-focused operation got stronger. When they decided to return to Kentucky, it all came together, Michael Messmer said.

What’s on the menu


The Messmers’ initial plan is to build their carryout operation first as they settle in and learn more about what the community wants. Later, they may add sit-down dining, adding more high-end dishes, but for now, especially with the uncertainty of the pandemic, they want to focus on portability and ease of operation. They are designing their kitchen and their business to be operated, if necessary, with only a few people.

Tacos were a perfect fit. Michael said, basically, a taco is just a plate you can eat. With that in mind, he plans surprises when it comes to what goes into the tacos. He said he hopes to adapt some of the French and Italian dishes he’s learned to the taco format as well as traditional tacos.

Yet, even traditional ingredients such as steak or fish will have surprising twists, he said. He plans to add in high-end toppings and is most excited about a salmon taco. He plans to offer a special taco each week along with those on the menu.

He said he is stoked about taco ideas sparked by conversations with Fort Thomas community members, even with pedestrians walking by curious about the restaurant. "They want vegetarian options, vegan options; they want fish options. So immediately I’m listening to that. We have experience working with jicama. You take jicama and slice it super super thin, and you make a tortilla out of it so it’s vegan. This works very well for keto diet too. So that vehicle is super exciting to me." 

They also plan to provide family-style carryout meals for families who would like to stop by and pick up the fixings for a quick meal.

And shaved ice margaritas 

 

Michael Messmer shows off his hand-cracked shaved ice machine. Shaved ice margaritas and other adult beverages as well as kid's fruit drinks will get the shaved ice treatment.

 

Michael Messmer showed off what his wife calls "his new toy," a hand-cranked shaved ice machine from Japan. The couple bought it with their daughter in mind thinking she could make shaved ice treats to sell.

While they do plan on non-alcoholic slushies with less sugar and natural fruit flavors, a shaved ice margarita is definitely in the plan, he said.

"That ice is perfect," said Leticia. "Any drink made with it is amazing."

The hand-crank will be fun, but they admitted if the margaritas take off, they may need to up their technology.

Both are excited about the potential of the DORA coming to Fort Thomas, but also said they want to be known as a family restaurant and not a bar.

They have a full liquor license and will have the ice machine and bottles displayed up front, but Michael said he is designing his liquor area to be portable and won’t have it out during the day. Adults can always order a drink, but he wants to keep the space as kid friendly as possible. Also upfront will be drinks popular in Mexico and the southwest, Mexican Coke and Manzanita Apple Soda.

Community and family

The Messmers said family and community is a reason they brought their new restaurant to Fort Thomas.

 

One reason the menu is not fleshed out entirely and a soft opening is planned, is because the Messmers said they want to get community feedback before opening. They plan food focus groups to try out their dishes. They plan to have samples for the upcoming Holiday Fair.

"We don’t want to open with a bang, more we want to let it spread, have people come to us more naturally, learn about us in their own way," said Michael.

Leticia explained further, "We want to make sure we have as much feedback from the public as possible. We want to know, is it too spicy, not spicy enough, is the flavor something you want? We want to do it gently, slowly to make sure we provide guests with exactly what they want, not what we think they should like."

There are many Mexican restaurants, and Leticia said she has heard all kinds of feedback on the food. The problem is when people have a complaint, they usually don’t come back. One never hears why exactly. So, she said, they plan the focus groups and tastings as a way to ensure they are on the right track.

"We want to make sure we do it the right way for the community...We’re not here to get rich. We want to stay here for the duration," she said. 




Responding to the community is key, said Michael."It’s a unique opportunity that’s presented to us. We want to make sure we’re vested for longevity and we’re listening, taking feedback and acting upon it."

 

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