Mauricio Melendez has brought southern-style barbecue north.
The chef, who opened El Toro Smokehouse in Oro-Medonte last summer, is expanding into Orillia.
“The buzz has been there. We do a good product. Nobody around here is doing this,” he said. “So, why not Orillia? It’s a great, up-and-coming community.”
Melendez opened his first location, on Highway 11 at Line 7, in August 2020. Any concerns about starting a new business in the midst of a global pandemic vanished on opening day as people lined up to try the food.
“You’ve got to take risks,” Melendez said.
He’s taking another one with the opening of an El Toro Smokehouse in Orillia, in the plaza at 247 West St. N. He hopes to open next week, but that hasn’t been confirmed.
Based on the response he’s received in Oro-Medonte, he is confident it will be a success.
“There’s been a lot of support from local people. It’s been overwhelming,” he said. “We let the food speak for itself.”
Melendez, who has been a chef for more than 15 years, cut his teeth in Austin, Texas, where barbecue is king.
“I learned how to do it every night, six nights a week,” he said.
He prides himself on using local products and supporting local producers. The result is a menu that includes brisket, ribs, pulled pork, chicken, sausage and a variety of house-made sauces, among many other items.
“It’s something I thought in my heart we needed in this area,” he said of genuine barbecue.
While the region’s culinary offerings have grown over the years, Melendez felt quality barbecue was missing.
“Everyone has tacos. Everyone’s doing pizza. Everyone’s doing burgers,” he said. “Barbecue needs a space in there.”
Traditional barbecue is his main focus, but he also knows how to elevate it. He has put that skill to the test in the past while working in fine-dining restaurants and working with Massimo Capra, a well-respected and celebrity chef in Toronto.
Melendez has catered events for the Toronto International Film Festival and parties for the likes of Madonna, the Jonas Brothers, the Toronto Blue Jays and the prime minister.
For those high-profile diners, he took barbecue to another level, offering up dishes such as quail with a mole chipotle barbecue sauce, and yuca toasted crostini with mole.
“The demand is perfection. You can’t miss the mark,” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also fun. I thrived in that.”
Whether he’s preparing food for celebrities or his regulars in this area, his standards remain the same.
Many have given him the highest praise he could receive after tasting his food.
“They say it feels like home,” he said. “That’s the goal.”
He is excited to bring that taste of home to Orillia, but he doesn’t plan to stop there. He is also looking at opening in other Simcoe County locations, including Alliston, Barrie, Bradford and Innisfil.
As for Orillia, he said, “We can’t wait to be part of the community and do something special.”