By Christie Galeano-DeMott
Photography by Felipe Cuevas
From his childhood home inside a gated community in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Jose Mendin developed a love of hospitality. He’d beg his parents to allow him to host sleepovers. He also loved playing sports with his friends, especially volleyball, arguably the most team-oriented of all the team sports. Since then, he’s elevated his entertaining game.
A couple of years ago, when the illustrious chef Massimo Bottura of the Michelin-starred Italian restaurant Osteria Francescana was in town for a chef collaboration dinner at Habitat at 1 Hotel South Beach, Mendin didn’t want to just cook with one of the best chefs in the world; he wanted to design a true Miami experience for the owner of one of the best restaurants in the world. Inside his since-shuttered Pubbelly Noodle Bar in Miami’s trendy Sunset Harbour neighborhood, Mendin created a memorable meal for Bottura, including a sweet corn agnolotti truffle broth, which the Italian chef admitted was one of the best things he’d eaten in a long time. A devoted fan of The Killers, Mendin followed the meal by whisking the celebrated chef away on the infamous E11even Miami party bus (sans strippers, he’s quick to point out) to the band’s concert, complete with a VIP backstage tour.
Mendin’s passion for creating experiences that make people happy is only surpassed by his love of cooking. At Rivertail, his first Fort Lauderdale restaurant, Mendin is doing both by inviting diners into his personal take on a fish house. Serving up memorable seafood-centric dishes, he has curated a menu that effortlessly blends bold Asian, Latin, European and American flavors like wagyu beef tartare served with yuzu dijon, caviar and truffle creme fraiche. Aside from offering guests a slew of tasty treats, there’s something else Mendin has put in the mix—something that diners instantly feel upon crossing the threshold. It’s the vibe. The open kitchen flutters with a rhythmic energy as the hostess extends an instant, cheerful welcome. A palette of rich cobalt blue and canary yellow draws you in while the hum of chart-topping hits fills the space and flows out into the veiled terrace and verdant bar.
“I want to make this an experience, like going to the theater, not just a place where you’re going to eat,” Mendin says while surveying the 200-seat eatery. “A restaurant is not only food or service or how it looks—it has to be a combination of things for it to work. I create places where I want to hang out.”
Miami’s iconic Pubbelly Noodle Bar, which put Mendin on the map and garnered him five James Beard Award nominations, was created mainly because he couldn’t find a genuine chef-driven bistro with reasonable prices where he could socialize with friends on his days off. The eatery lives on through its sister restaurant concept, Pubbelly Sushi, which is rapidly expanding with four Miami area locations and outposts in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Being busy is an understatement for Mendin. A couple of months before Rivertail’s December debut, Mendin traveled to Paris to open Moloko, a 70-seat Asian tapas restaurant and club in the Pigalle neighborhood.
Creating tempting dishes in captivating settings was never part of the 41-year-old’s plan. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Mendin had a passion for volleyball. But in college, his interest in the sport was eclipsed by his fervor for cooking. When he informed his father that he wanted drop his athletic scholarship to cook instead of play, his dad was stunned because Mendin had never cooked a day in his life. He’d never stepped inside his childhood kitchen. But, Mendin’s foodie parents, who were constantly taking their three sons to the newest culinary haunts on the island, had inadvertently planted a seed.
Seeing a spark in his son’s eye, Mendin’s dad struck a deal with the novice chef: Mendin would work in a kitchen and prove his dedication to his new career before the family invested in any gastronomic schooling. So, at 17, he gave up his dream of playing outside hitter for the Puerto Rican national volleyball team for a dishwasher position at a Spanish restaurant, always using the focus and discipline he learned as an athlete to propel himself.
“When I played volleyball, I was always in a team environment; when I got into the kitchen, I felt like part of a team again, but now with the goal of providing good service,” he says as a smile peeks out through his sable beard.
Deriving its name from a fusion of its riverside location and the yellowtail snapper, Rivertail lends itself to a nautical, tranquil atmosphere. But instead of the usual fish house decor of lobsters or fishing nets hanging from the ceiling, the restaurant’s sleek banquettes, neon-illuminated dual bars and waterside terrace add that extra bit of flavor that seamlessly fuses with Mendin’s focus on delivering memorable service.
At Rivertail, Mendin is a creative master, merging his beloved flavors and ingredients into dishes that are well-executed. A favorite among guests, the crab donuts served on miniature brioche with spicy honey and sea salt, was Mendin’s fresh take on merging a crab cake slider with a donut filled with smoked fish dip. The menu also includes a nod to his childhood. As a kid, Mendin and his mother would frequent a local Spanish cafeteria where she would always order the veal brains, served fried with tartar sauce. So, in honor of his mom, he crafted his own spin on the savory dish with a special meunière sauce of capers, butter, lemon juice and squid ink.
With no lack of ideas, Mendin has launched several activations, including a Thursday all-you-can-eat lobster feast, a Saturday barbecue bash and a Sunday brunch. He even hints that diners can also look forward to a new Pubbelly Sushi outpost in Fort Lauderdale in the future.
“I’m going to keep doing what I love to do,” Mendin says. “I’ve been blessed that I created a product that people like.”
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 Issue.