Unlikely things that made an impact on Cincinnati’s culinary scene: Andrew Mersmann’s mother gave him a cast iron skillet for his birthday when he was a teenager. He used it to make pork chops and mashed potatoes. Now, having made mashed potatoes “600 times since then,” he’s the head chef and general manager at Django Western Taco in Northside.
Mersmann is one of those people who is completely focused. It’s almost as though there’s a perfectly straight path from that skillet to Django’s front door — a path paved with talent, but also with hard work. He attributes his success to two things.
“I worked really hard, and I paid attention to everything that anyone smarter than me ever did,” he says, adding, “and I assumed that most people were smarter than me.”
Mersmann grew up in Price Hill and graduated from Walnut Hills High School. After a brief stint at the Art Academy, he started his career bussing tables at Pigall’s on Fourth Street, when the restaurant was headed by Chef Jean Robert de Cavel. He had a moment of rebellion when his mom encouraged him to go to culinary school and he refused. Later, of course, he saw the value and enrolled. He’s two labs short of graduating, but may not have time to finish studying restaurant operations while he’s actually running a restaurant.
Mersmann enjoys front-of-the-house interaction, so he makes opportunities to be out front at Django, even working in the bartending rotation. His kitchen manager, Sam DeWald, makes sure things in the back are “how they should be.” Her reliability has freed Mersmann to draw up schedules and develop a beer list.
“It’s more challenging than you’d think,” he laughs.
“When the beer reps come in at 10 in the morning and want you to taste beers, and then you’ve got the whole day ahead of you? It’s tough not to take a nap!”
Another challenge at Django has been keeping the menu prices low. Coming from fine dining restaurants like LaPoste and Jean Robert’s Table, he’s worked with higher prices on the past. Northside is low-key, and to succeed there, Mersmann knows he has to keep Django’s prices at a point where guests can come back often.
“The $3-$20 range lets customers feel like they had a great experience that lasts beyond when they pay the check. Sticker shock can really ruin your night, and we want people to return,” he says.
As an example, he points to the Sheriff’s Stone Bowl, Django’s Wild West version of Korean Bibimbap.
“I think, what would I cook for myself with good, affordable ingredients? And I came up with this, which is like a big bowl of deliciousness,” Mersmann says. “It’s $16, and it easily feeds two.”
Recently, he’s been adding some “fancier stuff,” primarily because there’s been a demand for it, but also because his line cooks are excited to have some variety. They’re doing seared scallops with mango, papaya, tomatillo salsa and salsa verde. Mersmann’s shrimp tacos, which he developed for The Carnegie’s Art of Food opening night in March, were a delicious success and have since been added to Django’s regular menu. The tacos are topped with poached shrimp, a salad of goat cheese and spinach, sweet chili sauce and a pinch of tempura flakes.
“We’re doing a grilled salmon, too, with sautéed onions, tomatoes, spinach and rice — and bacon and guacamole,” he laughs. “Those are the three best fats, right? Salmon, bacon and avocado? So how could that be bad?”
Mersmann pays close attention to what works and what doesn’t, and then he does what works. He’s moved up the ladder — or should we call it the food chain? — by realizing that in a small world, relationships matter. He told me that he had a chance to cook at Pho Paris at a time in his life when not much made sense, but that did. He’s grateful that he had that opportunity.
“I’d say this sums up what my inspiration has always been, from Otto’s to Honey to Jean Robert’s Table to La Poste to Django: My inspiration lies in the challenge to provide guests with flavors that are unique and approachable; to make them say ‘mmm,’ ” he says.
Wise words from a kid with a cast iron skillet and a dream.
Django Western Taco
Go: 4046 Hamilton Ave., Northside
Hours: 5-11 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday