Jose Melendez, chef and owner of Twisted Taino, knows what it’s like to build from the ground up. At 14, his family moved from Puerto Rico to Tremont after his mom experienced a troubling divorce. He graduated high school and enrolled in Cleveland State University, only to leave after two years to take care of his family when his mother grew ill. For four years, he worked as a general manager for UHaul. But in 2009, Melendez became homeless after going through his own divorce, living on friends’ couches and eventually in his own car.
“Things had hit rock bottom so bad and I just wasn’t sure how I would come up,” Melendez says. “I knew I needed to do something to provide for my kids because I didn’t have a stable lifestyle.”
As a father of two, Melendez began looking into the culinary arts, and as a means to jumpstart his life, he started selling food out of his home and founded Melendez Catering. In 2017, Melendez was approached by Ohio City Galley to enter a food competition where he was introduced to Victor Searcy Jr. of Sauce the City. Searcy later ordered empanadas from Melendez and loved them so much, he invited Melendez to open his own restaurant, Twisted Taino, last August in Searcy’s new and improved Sauce the City Food Hall. The name of the restaurant, which pays homage to the indigenous people of the Caribbean, was christened by Melendez’s brother, who told him his food had a magical power of fusing Caribbean and Latin flavors with a contemporary spin.
“My cuisine style is a modern take on traditional flavors from Puerto Rico, Colombia, Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti,” Melendez says. “My touch even includes classic Americana, because so much of Taino culture has impacted much of what we eat today.”
Guests travel from Detroit, Cincinnati, Youngstown and New York to experience Melendez’s flavorful dishes. His food has become such a commodity, he’s now opening a second location in Parma that will house catering, carryout and delivery services and indoor and outdoor dining. He envisions the look of it to encompass an “Old San Juan” theme, with the menu infused with Latin steakhouse dishes and seafood dishes that are popular on the coast of Puerto Rico.
“There’s a huge opportunity there because there aren’t many Latin food, big service restaurants in that area,” Melendez says. “With this new restaurant, I want to transport people into the Caribbean culture.”
After three years hustling, Melendez is coming into his own and his family continues to be his biggest motivator.
“I’ve always been a believer in walking by faith not by sight,” Melendez says.
If you enjoyed this story, dig in to the rest of May's Best Restaurants issue below.
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