BY ERIN PODOLSKY | DETROIT FREE PRESS
There’s no doubt some irony in the fact that plenty of places around the country beat the Motor City to developing a vibrant scene of eats on four wheels, but now that pioneering food truck El Guapo Grill is bringing southwestern-flavored joy to denizens of the Central Business District, Detroit just might be able to take back its automotive mantle.
Guapo means “handsome” in Spanish, and El Guapo Grill is indeed a handsome devil, all decked out in black, red and shiny chrome accents. The truck is run by owners Douglas Runyon, who has worked the front of the house at Michael Mina’s restaurants, and Anthony Curis, whose family is in the restaurant business. After the city signed off on a special use permit for their truck — an existing Detroit ordinance does not allow food truck vending — they were off and running with El Guapo, which began serving lunch on July 15.
Following the playbook written by truck-runners in Los Angeles and New York, they post frequently on Facebook and Twitter (@elGuapoGrill) to let customers know their whereabouts and menu items.
For the moment, El Guapo’s location is relatively static — nestled in a parking lot about equidistant from Campus Martius and Greektown on the corner of Randolph and Monroe, delivering lunch service from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and appearing Saturday night and “special occasions” from 5-11 p.m. They also have a standing gig at Eastern Market later in the day on Tuesdays, and hope to get dispensation from the city to add late-night service and other locations soon.
“Hopefully by being out here and being a good example for other food trucks and working with neighboring businesses, hopefully the city will see this as an asset and will allow us to continue if not extend our hours,” says Curis.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t get an earlier jump on the day. Next week Curis and Runyon plan to launch breakfast service from 7:30-10:30 a.m., which will include breakfast burritos, Great Lakes coffee and crispy Tater Tots. We chatted with Runyon as he and his crew prepared for another lunch rush.
QUESTION: Where did the idea for El Guapo come from?
ANSWER: I opened Jean Georges Steakhouse out at Aria in Las Vegas. That was a very nice experience. Learning to open that was great. However, Vegas wasn’t good for my family and I. I knew I needed to come home.
When I came home, I knew I wanted to do something with a restaurant and was researching West Coast things and saw the food-truck shows and the popularity. There’s the need in Detroit. Obviously there’s the ones in southwest (Detroit), but they don’t come out of southwest. I had a business plan together when I met Anthony, and we evolved from that. We thought, “Detroit needs this.”
Q: So what’s more challenging, running a high-end restaurant or a taco truck?
A: In opening that $11.5-million property and all the chaos, this has actually been more challenging by far. For instance, on the way here today, the traffic. The gas goes out. You don’t have a direct feed to gas. The refrigeration. So many moving parts, pun intended. I have to coordinate the vendors to drop off at certain times.
But in the same regard, it’s fun and exciting, and all of the people that have come out have been very fired up.
Q: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in the three weeks that El Guapo has been open?
A: Never underestimate the popularity of something new. We wouldn’t want to sell out of anything. People like our food — there wasn’t a question or a doubt about that, but people are ordering more than I would have thought. Burritos are popular. Capacity is our biggest hurdle.
Q: Why focus on Detroit when there was so much red tape to deal with?
A: Again, moving to Las Vegas made me realize a couple of things. One, this is a real city and something to be proud of. Also, there’s a lot of growth here. It’s exciting. There are real people, not fake people. We could have opened in the suburbs and it would have been easier, but we wanted to be downtown.
Q: Tell me about your signature Guapo sauce.
A: Guapo sauce is sweet, smoky love. But in essence it’s chipotle ranch. Detroiters love ranch, and I got these chipotles in adobo and I played around with it at home. Not to say I’m a genius or a chef, but I’m big, and I’m fat and I love food. I put it together, and it worked. It goes good on everything.