Chismoso Opens on Gay Street

Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024
Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024

Fans of great Mexican-American food have reason to celebrate as Chismoso (It means gossip. They want you to visit, hence, no televisions.) opens at 131 South Gay Street offering cocktails and comida (meals for the non-Spanish speakers among us). The restaurant has been softly open for a couple of weeks, but officially launches regular hours today. Don’t be fooled by the Anaba sign that may still be hanging around, you are about to enter a fun and delicious experience that plays on both sides of the border.

The restaurant is co-owned by Manny (Emmanuel) Perez and Corbin Azambuja features head chef Will Stagg. While you may see any of the three in the restaurant (Will will be behind the counter), Corbin will be there most of the time and you’ll likely run into him when you visit the restaurant. I sat down with the three of them to get an idea of what they are up to, their backgrounds, and what brought them to this point.

Corbin, who grew up in Knoxville, worked in restaurants from the time he was a teenager, joining his mom early on at Dead End Barbecue where his mother was manager. He worked a range of jobs there, then a long series of other restaurants, always with a vision of one day opening his own. He tried real estate, but soon determined that wasn’t him.

Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024
Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024
Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024
Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024

Corbin had been friends with Manny’s younger brother, Danny (your mind isn’t playing tricks on you – I wrote about Danny Perez and his new business, Contra, two days ago) since high school, so they knew each other. Corbin was managing Chivo and Stock and Barrel four years ago when Manny approached him about opening a seasonal restaurant, Monterrey Tacos and Beer, on Norris Lake at Waterside Marina.

Thinking it would be a small operation, the business exploded from the first day and they’ve repeated it each summer since. Corbin said, “People show up buy the little boatload.” He said they arrive in boats of all sizes, including pontoon boats full of people, instantly slamming the place. From the experience they learned that they enjoyed working together and that they could make a very successful food business. They saved the money with the idea of opening a permanent restaurant.

Manny has worked at Monterrey Mexican restaurant with his father (the owner) since it opened in 1992. Starting at fifteen-years-old, and “he hasn’t fired me yet.” While he was born in Atlanta, he’s lived here most of his life. “I appreciate everything my father and the chefs there have taught me through the years. It was cool to re-connect with the culture of food . . . I ate McDonalds when I was young.” His father recently retired and Manny now co-owns the restaurant and operates it with some cousins.

Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024
Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024

He didn’t always love it. His father treated him like anyone else, starting him as a dishwasher. “I hated it . . . He made it where I only worked a couple days a week. He said if I wanted to be a manager one day I needed to learn all the jobs . . . so I could step in if someone quit. Now I’m in that position because of him and I appreciate it.”

I asked him why, if he’s taken over that restaurant he wanted to open another one. “I love the connection, talking to people.” He said he’s known some people through Monterrey from when they were toddlers to now knowing them as adults.” He’ll be stopping to the three locations to make sure all is well, but he won’t be as hands-on at the new restaurant. That said, he’s excited by the creative control he’ll have to make menu and other decisions. One example of those choices is the additive-free tequila bar of which he is very proud.

Will is originally from San Diego and has worked in restaurants for years, starting out in the front of house. He first landed in the Knoxville area when his father retired from the military, and he eventually worked for a time at MiMi’s in Turkey Creek. After moving back to San Diego, he helped operate a family deli, ultimately attending San Diego Culinary Institute and starting his professional career as a chef. He worked in fine dining there, but “the place that inspired me the most was Galaxy Taco in La Jolla. They were doing what we’re doing here with fresh corn tortillas.

Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024
Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024

The chef there, Christina Rivera, who I owe so much is the reason I’m doing what I’m doing now. Watching her do it every day, being a strong woman in the kitchen was inspiring, but watching her make fresh masa every day and how therapeutic it was, for me was amazing. And it’s night-and-day from a tortilla you buy in a store . . . It was done with such grace. It was inspiring . . . and her food was great.”

He and his wife moved back to Knoxville around 2018. He worked at Oli Bea, JC Holdway, and Elkmont Exchange. He made fresh masa for Tako Taco while they were open and he thought he might open his own Taqueria. He was working at Abridged when he saw an ad for this restaurant and he reached out. Corbin said, “We had no plan for food at that point.” Will felt this was it for him and after meeting them, they realized they all shared a common vision for the new place and it all fell in place. Manny said, “I could tell he cared.”

The group came up with the menu together and got creative. One of the dishes on the menu will be spaghetti verde. Yes, spaghetti. I was taken aback, as well. Manny said it is a “traditional Mexican dish, It’s made in Jalisco where my family is from.” (Pastabilities Pasta, Well Station poblano sausage, lim shallots, queso fresco, cherry tomatoes, and east Tennessee mushrooms – steak pieces optional, but highly recommended. Also available as vegetarian.)

Empanadas, Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024
Pork Tacos, Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024
Spaghetti Verdi, Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024
Batanga, Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024

Tequila also comes from that part of Mexico and they emphasize the small, but excellent selection of additive-free tequila, which includes their favorites. You’ll find a mix of local (Xul) and Mexican beers, as well as seltzers. Corbin said, “We’re getting a Nicaraguan beer that I really enjoy and another called “Superior.” Other food you’ll find includes wings with a wide range of sauces. You’ll find guajillo pork tacos, carne asada fries, ceviche, and (again, highly recommended) empanadas.

Manny said, “Me, being Mexican-American, but both my parents being from the motherland, I’ve always appreciated my culture, but I do appreciate going to (American) local restaurants, I do appreciate good food. So, why not a little bit of Monterrey’s, a little bit of fine dining, a little bit of Mexican?” Will said, “I kind of think it’s cool that we’re paying respect to both cultures.” Will also said to expect the dishes themselves to evolve as they experiment with different spices and sauces.

The range of food and the range of beverages (they have a strong tequila-based cocktail program they are excited to share) makes the spot perfect for date night or for dropping in after your workout. They want it to be that kind of place and they are enjoying surprising everyone. As we talked they settled on the term “fun dining.”

Regular hours officially begin today, with the kitchen open 4:00 pm to 10:00 pm and the bar open to midnight, Wednesday through Sunday. Watch for the addition of lunch and weekend brunch after they’ve settled in. When they do add lunch, they promise to have a quick menu for people with a small window of time.

(L-R) Chef Will Stagg, Co-owners Manny Perez and Corbin Azambuja, Chismoso, 131 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2024

The group wants to make a personal connection to their neighbors and its already started, with lots of support from the business owners and workers around them. Manny said, “We’re always going to have a product that we’re proud of and care about. We’re going to put everything into our work . . . and always have something new and fresh.”

At great sacrifice and, as a service to our community, Urban Woman and I checked it out. The food and drink you see pictured here is ours. We shared the empanadas and loved them. She had the pork tacos and I had to get the spaghetti verde. We argued over whose was the best. I got the steak added to the pasta and strongly suggest doing so for anyone trying the dish. The food was more than I could eat, so I enjoyed some the next day. I also enjoyed a Batanga served in a a boot-shaped glass (tequila lime juice, Mexican coke, salt rim, over ice). We plan to return very soon.