Table Talk

A Trio of Unique

By Priscilla Willis  |  Photography courtesy of Priscilla Willis and Yeyo’s Mezcaleria

Yeyo’s Chef Rafael Rios brings distinctive Mexican dishes to Northwest Arkansas — and earns himself a Beard nomination.

Yeyo’s Mezcaleria & Taqueria rounds out the elevated food and beverage experiences within the historic building known as The 1907. In the 1900s, the prominent red brick building in downtown Rogers, Ark., was the economic hub of the city, an open-market grocery and storage warehouse where trains loaded and unloaded goods before they were distributed to local businesses.

The ambiance of the dimly lit interior captivates customers with its worn brick walls and striking gold and turquoise Mesoamerican deity art piece. The well-appointed bar is lined with bottles of mezcal, tequila’s smoky cousin, ready for tasting. On some evenings, Owner/Chef Rafael Rios, his two brothers and business partners Roman and Fernando Rios, and patriarch Hector Rios can be caught brainstorming over late-night street tacos.

Yeyo’s Mezcaleria is the first of its kind in Northwest Arkansas and the third jewel in the Rios family restaurant enterprise. The business began as a family farm (still in operation), which beget a food truck whose popularity morphed into their flagship restaurant, Yeyo’s El Alma de Mexico at 8th Street Market, Northwest Arkansas’ first food and entertainment hall.

It Started with a Farm
The Rios family came to the Ozarks from California in 2006.

Hector, nicknamed Yeyo, started growing vegetables on the family’s seven acres in Little Flock, Ark., for personal use and, eventually, for the food truck Rafael launched in 2012. Parked on the Bentonville Square, Yeyo’s Mexican street fare made fresh daily with produce from the farm quickly became a hit in an area starved for authentic Mexican food.

The food truck’s success led to Yeyo’s El Alma de Mexico, the first restaurant in the 8th Street Market, the regional culinary hub which opened in 2018 in Bentonville. Last year, Rios opened Yeyo’s Mezcaleria & Taqueria in Rogers.

The hard work and popularity led to culinary recognition. Rios was named a semifinalist for the 2020 James Beard Best Chef: South award in February. Like the Oscars are to the movie industry, the James Beard Awards are the most coveted honors for restaurants, chefs, authors, and other leaders in the food and beverage industry.

And Then Came Coronavirus
In March, restaurants across the nation faced monumental challenges as the battle against COVID-19 devastated the restaurant industry. Yeyo’s initially was forced to lay off over 90 percent of its personnel. A few employees were brought back to meet the Paycheck Protection Program Stimulus Package requirements. However, with only a limited menu for carryout and rotating family meal specials, they were not working fulltime.

Fortunately, Yeyo’s was ahead of the curve in developing user-friendly online ordering that automatically links to their POS system. Customers can place orders from any of Yeyo’s social media platforms and have contactless payment and curbside pickup.

Restaurants are accustomed to adapting to customer tastes and industry trends. Yet, closures resulting from COVID-19 took “adapt or die” to a whole new level. Chef Rios and partners decided to use this time for fine-tuning: revising their processes and recipes and soliciting expert advice on particular areas they were working on, such as a better bar program.

Rios says that now, more than ever, it is vital to innovate and come up with new ideas. He gains inspiration by looking at what other restaurants are doing in New York City, Seattle, and West Coast cities. However, while he and his partners gain knowledge from following innovative restaurants in other areas, it doesn’t tell them everything; they must read the market here and ask themselves what their customers are doing, what they want.

Yeyo’s plans on continuing the family dinners and weekly rotating specials (eloté, barbacoa, and carnitas). He also plans to keep playing to his target audience of vegans and vegetarian diners.

“For the majority of Mexican restaurants, it’s a little more challenging to accommodate because it’s a cultural thing — for the most part, we’re not very much vegetarians,” Rios says.

Yeyo’s menu, as well as that of the food truck and mezcaleria offers appetizing vegan and vegetarian dishes incorporating fresh local produce from Rios Family Farms. Guests, vegetarian or otherwise, may savor grilled veggie street tacos brimming with grilled zucchini, squash, and mushrooms, meaty mushroom barbacoa, and flavorful vegan al pastor.

Weekend Brunch Destination
During the COVID-19 closure, Rios and partners were busy honing their ordering and kitchen processes to increase efficiency and testing new recipes.

“The brunch program that we are going to present will be mind-blowing,” Rios says. “Yeyo’s will absolutely be a destination for brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.”

The new brunch menu will still feature Yeyo’s Mexican favorites such as chilaquiles and huevos rancheros as well as American breakfast fare like pancakes, bacon, and chorizo. New to the brunch lineup is a “Conscious Menu,” a simple breakfast incorporating more farm ingredients. And, for those “not so conscious” guests, there is the other side of the menu with Yeyo’s incredible jalapeño biscuits and chorizo gravy and eggs Benedict with their unique twist of Mexican flavors.

The Rios family roots stretch to Michoacan, Mexico, whose cuisine is the inspiration for many of the house recipes for Yeyo’s dishes. Michaocan is known as “the soul of Mexico” for its distinctive food that reflects the state’s generous, warm, hospitable, and caring people. This is exactly what you’ll experience at Yeyo’s.

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