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Up The Food Chain

How Andrew Mersmann made his way from bussing tables to running Django Western Taco

By Anne Mitchell · April 3rd, 2013 · Diner
eats_django_andrewmersmann_keithbowers-2Photo: Keith Bowers

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
Call: 513-542-3664
Internet: facebook.com/djangonorthside
Hours: 5-11 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday

 
 
 
 

 

 
04.03.2013 at 12:36 Reply

Food was good, price was decent. Service sucked. 

Don't bother unless you're a hipster or one of the "beautiful people". Typical snotty service from queenbee wannabee who treated us like crap. Food was wrong and it was our fault? Really - we I say "no" to an ingrediant, you read it back as a "no", and it still arrives, how is that my fault? 

Another example of how Cincinnati's so-called independent news is really just another media outlet up for whatever the "cool people" think is worthwhile. 

Django? Bad enough Tarantino takes the name, but I bet these idiots decide to run on the QT craze. Gone by the end of 2013 if they don't get off their pedestal of milk cartons and hispter pretense. 

Good food will only get you so far if your staff is horrible. 

 

04.03.2013 at 05:09

Allison, I have worked very hard to increase the standards of food and service at Django Western Taco and I am truly sorry you had a negative experience.  However, this article was not about Django, it was about me and my journey through the Cincinnati food scene.  Feel free to email me at djangonorthside@gmail.com with any additional comments or concerns pertaining directly to your experience at Django Western Taco as I think that may be a more constructive venue to voice those concerns.

Thanks again for the feedback!

 

04.03.2013 at 09:13

Our service was personal, informative, respectful, funny and memorable.  The food has left me wanting to come back again and again.  The entire staff was enjoyable, focused and helpful.  One of the best overall dining experiences in the city.  And I am as far from hipster as you can get.

 

04.04.2013 at 01:39

Allison, you have our attention. 

The above article is very specifically about Andrew Mersman and his dedication, care, and endless hours of hard work.

  1. Name calling isn't nice
  2. If you don't like Northside, don't go to Northside.
  3. If you don't like City Beat, don't read City Beat.
Shame on you.

 

04.03.2013 at 08:50 Reply

Allison, this article is about the individual that runs the restaurant you had a bad server experience at.  It is about the person you should have spoken with upon having said bad experience. Seems unfair to bash a restaurant in a forum like this, as it seems it is more than just you being jaded about an experience -but more of a dislike towards hipsters in general. Sad to wish a restaurant with good food away,when that is the heart of the restaurant. Next time you have a bad experience save your woes for formal complaint in lieu of a vendetta against your social qualms. Also how can you generalize the entire staff as horrible when you only interacted with one person? 

 

04.03.2013 at 09:20 Reply

Awesome food, amazing staff, wonderful management  , great talent in all aspects! Thumbs up

 

04.05.2013 at 06:36 Reply

Ate at Django's a week ago for lunch - "WOW" - guess I'm a 62 year old hipster - great service, great "feeling" in the restaurant, incredible food (I tipped the kitchen too) and Andrew was out front enjoying his customers.

 

04.12.2013 at 12:29 Reply

I thought the food and service was good. And I'm not really into fancy menus and food items. I'm a old fashioned burger and fry guy or big ole' juicy steak and potato man. All the vegan friendly/gluten free eateries popping up in northside are not my usual places to dine at, but, to each his/her own. My wife introduced me Djangos and at first I was skeptical, but, the food and service won me over. And I'm not a hipster by far! I'm just a brother from the hood that gives credit where credit is due! People just hate because they can't do it good like you do!

 

 
 
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