By MADOLINE MARKHAM
A machine from Mexico grinds corn to be freshly pressed into tortillas. The smoker cooks only whole hogs from nearby farms with humane practices. A wood-burning oven bakes bread for street sandwiches. The kitchen at Little Donkey renders fat from pigs for tamales, squeezes the limes for their margaritas, and grills and smokes arbol chilies and habanero peppers for earthy tones in their salsa.
“We wanted real Mexican food that isn’t dumbed down and all melty cheese,” Chef and Managing Partner Joshua Gentry said. “We wanted to be respectful to this culture and their food.”
The kitchen goes through six cases of tomatoes a day and boxes of organic avocados that are shipped the day they are picked in Mexico.
Something about this fresh, local, authentic concept has attracted huge crowds since the restaurant opened in the old ABC store location in April.
“I thought we would have to be out on the street explaining our food to people,” Gentry said. “But we are busy like it’s spring break or something.”
The flavors at Little Donkey are truly Mexican, but the hospitality is truly Southern. The recycled pine walls and glazed windows of the space give it a rustic, warm flair. A garage door opens to a patio lined with colored lights.
The owners chose the spot for its central location. “Here we are still far enough from downtown Homewood that it feels like we are in a neighborhood,” Gentry said.
Gentry said the soups are the hidden gems on the menu. One he served soon after opening was filled with pork broth, chilies, pasta, smoked veggies, avocado and egg.
He also recommends the tacos. The colossal La Taqueria takes two tortillas, one flour and one corn, to hold the pork, brisket, cheese, pintos, pico and crema that fill it. For another variety, fish is grilled and topped with queso, pickled cabbages and a chipotle cream. There are also brisket, pork, smoked chicken, steak and veggie tacos.
Tortas, Mexican street sandwiches, are served on freshly baked bread. The Drunken Hog is piled with pinto, guacamole, cheese and pickled onions with tomato broth served on the side. Each is served with a side like a street-style full cob of corn topped with queso fresco. The La Concoction side serves black beans and rice in a small skillet, topped with an egg.
Full of a distinctly Little Donkey voice, the menu speaks of the “gooey goodness” in the veggie fundido and tells you to “love the tortilla and she will love you back” (and that’s pretty easy when it’s made with corn freshly ground the day you put it in your mouth).
What you see on the menu is collaboration inspired by trips to Mexico and Mexican restaurants all over; Nick Pihakis, who started Jim N Nicks with his father and owns Little Donkey’s parent company; Gentry; and countless other big names in the food world.
Gentry lives behind Homewood Central Park and has started skateboarding to work most days. A 1991 graduate of Homewood High School, he went to school in Colorado and worked on the Gulf coast and in Nashville before moving back five years ago.
“It’s funny how I kept running away from living in Homewood,” Gentry said. “Now I love working seven minutes from home. What’s even more awesome is that people who I didn’t even realize knew me have been in here to support me and my family.”
Gentry said his team’s vision for fresh, local, authentic food is still evolving.
“We want our food to be different and better every day,” Gentry said.
The Little Donkey
2821 Central Avenue
Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.