A name in the burgeoning restaurant scene within The Shoppes at Eastchase, Little Donkey, pays homage to a culinary tradition of soulful nourishment with fresh ingredients and time-tested technique.
Entering the doors at their Montgomery outpost (two other locations are in Birmingham), you’re greeted by giant bags of dried corn, the contents later to be freshly ground, cooked down, made into dough (masa in Spanish) and individually hand-pressed into fresh corn tortillas.
Sit down at their long and winding wood bar and you’ll get a behind-the-scenes look at an open-style kitchen, with countless colorful tiles adorning the walls. Racks of red tomatoes ripen behind the bar and an electric press spins out yeasty flour tortillas. You won’t find any freezers, or lower tier liquor here, but you will find a whole lot of Mexican flavor with a Southern flair.
The concept began with creator, Joshua Gentry, previously of Jim & Nick’s BBQ, who ate at nearly every Mexican restaurant he could to prepare for his own menu design. He spent time with Mexican cooks, adopting their tips (use dried chili instead of fresh for consistent salsa), but also realizing the sisterly resemblance between Mexican food culture and that of the South. “We put all these labels on food that can be irrelevant sometimes. My grandmother ate pinto beans and cornbread for every meal, and across the border... it’s black beans and tamales for every meal.”
In that spirit, Barbeque takes the place of Barbacoa, with Jim ‘N Nick’s notorious smoke style nestled into many a tortilla or tamale at Little Donkey, not to mention starring in the beef brisket fajitas, that upon taking center stage, trail smoke in their wake, cast iron layered with roasted poblano peppers and onions. You believe this fajita is living its best life and exemplifies Little Donkey’s mantra of “Mexican food with a southern soul.”
Other items that borrow from both sides of the border include a grass-fed chili cheese burger, carried not by bun, but tortilla, along with a variety of Mexican sandwiches (tortas), like the Drunkenhog, so named for its side of spicy tomato dipping sauce. There are also burritos and bowls, with options for vegetarians. “You can be good or you can be bad,” says their Marketing Manager, Emily Brown, with a grin.
Southern soul shines in their nationally ranked fried chicken, which brines for up to 24 hours before a steam fryer locks in all that juicy goodness. Try it with an elote (Mexican style street corn) and some of the best fried potatoes around. Condiments abound with chipotle crema, habanero vinegar, and pickled vegetables, classically Mexican, but also a nod to relish tradition in the South (chow chow, anyone?)
Of course there’s fresh pico and guac, enough to go around or feed a crowd - literally, as Little Donkey also offers take-out packages and catering. Their regular dinner menu also sees nightly additions. “Throwback Thursday” offers an “old school taco plate” that Manager Davis Rogers says harkens back to “the tacos your mom used to make at home.” (It’s the only night ground beef is served.)
Kids are welcome - they even get their own menu on the back of a lucha libre coloring mask and are sure to love one of the customary Mexican beverages, like Horchata, rice milk steeped with vanilla and cinnamon. The adults can cool their palate down after some smoke and spice and everything nice with Little Donkey’s “El Bushwackador,” the creamy concoction Southerns know and love, with a frozen twist. House signature cocktail, “The Donkey’s Daddy,” puts a spin on the classic Jamaica, originally hibiscus, allspice and clove by using hibiscus syrup, fresh lime, Barton’s whiskey, and top shelf Jimador tequila.
Outside of the food and beverage selection, the team at Little Donkey speaks passionately about how their atmosphere of conviviality transcends and blurs cultural barriers. “This feels like home,” says Brown, Marketing Manager, “... how we are in Alabama, ya know, we all get together on Sunday and do family dinner… like food is a relationship builder and an experience that we can all get excited about.”
Speaking on community, one singular family makes all the food coming out of the kitchen. Cornelio, their head chef came on after being at Jim ‘N Nick’s, joined by his wife as head host and his brothers as cooks. “When we found Cornelio, we knew we were in good hands,” Manager Chris Thompson says. “We have a very strong core and we are very appreciative of that.”
English and Spanish are exchanged among staff, the door held open for guests, and a hug goodbye given to regulars. It’s a place where the marriage of Southern hospitality and Mexican tradition means dang good eats. Odele! (Yeehaw!)