Long before it’s officially open for the day, the Fishers Test Kitchen is filled with the delicious smells of onions, ancho chiles, and tomatillos, thanks to Levi Kinney ’16 and his restaurant, Gordito’s Rust Belt Tacos & Tortas.
“I was a chubby little kid, so the restaurant’s name is a play on that,” Kinney begins. “I loved food and playing around the kitchen. My grandma was a big proponent of that. I cherish those memories.”
The owner and head chef grew up in Jackson, Michigan, a town about an hour and 15 minutes west of Detroit and not that dissimilar from any other small Midwestern town. When his parents divorced in 2004, his mom and brother relocated to Indianapolis.
“Being from the Midwest, there is a blue-collar, hard-working attitude in the way we treat food,” the former standout rugby player and member of the Little Giant wrestling team says. “We like hot food and a lot of it.”
As an All-American rugby player in high school, Kinney had the opportunity to travel to Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina for matches. That created an interest in other cultures, which was bolstered by his decision to attend Wabash.
He tested into Spanish 103, where his instructor, now Associate Dean of Students Marc Welch ’99, noticed Kinney’s affinity for the subject. Marc pushed Kinney to think about a minor, and as Kinney progressed, Welch talked about a major and possibly studying abroad.
“Levi was a hard worker and surprisingly attentive in an 8 a.m. Spanish course,” says Welch. “His energy was infectious, and he was naturally inquisitive about the language, people, and culture. He was like a sponge, constantly processing and asking questions.”
Once Kinney decided on and settled in Segovia, Spain, for his semester abroad in January 2015, he was completely mesmerized by the food and culture. From his first bite of paella to a Tortilla Española and a coffee in the morning, he was hooked.
“Everything felt like it was out of a storybook,” says the Spanish and psychology double major. “Once I landed in Spain, I was truly taken by everything.”
His host family, especially his host mom, Emy Gonzalez, taught him about the food they were eating and the history of the people in the surrounding area. He felt the connections as he shared food with others.
Back in the States, he began working in restaurants in earnest, returning to the food service industry that he had started in at 16.
“There was no epiphany when I decided I’m going to be a chef, but it was just an accumulation of these experiences,” he says. “Food is something special. It can influence people in a really positive way. This project is really about the food that I’ll cook for the rest of my life.”
Every morning that effort takes shape in a long galley kitchen shared with two other restaurants in the Fishers Test Kitchen. This is where he and business partner Scott Bebee work through the daily prep, which often starts with tending to brisket that has smoked overnight, roasting onions, peppers, tomatillos, and beef and chicken bones that make the foundation of Gordito’s Rust Belt Tacos & Tortas savory dipping sauce.
It takes time to make Gordito’s unique dipping sauce—two days to be exact. The consommé starts out with 30 pounds of beef and chicken bones, vegetable scraps, ancho chiles, and adobo seasoning in a stockpot before it becomes the rich red dunking accompaniment to any taco or torta.
“Being from the Midwest, there is a blue-collar, hard-working attitude in the way we treat food...”
“Let’s be honest, dipping things is delicious,” the chef says through a big smile. “The tradition of street food that came up from Mexico into Southern California is what made the light bulb go off. I could blend these concepts and make flavors work together.”
The menu features pork, chicken, and slow-braised brisket as its go-to meats, along with tortas, the flavorful Mexican sandwiches; tacos; and, true to his palate and upbringing, two Mexican-infused Detroit-style coney dogs.
melding flavors is one thing. Opening a restaurant is another.
Kinney, 28, has experienced plenty in his dozen years in kitchens working his way up from busboy. During that time, he and Bebee had worked together at a number of Indianapolis-area establishments, became friends, and built a history around food, often talking, eating, and bouncing ideas off each other over food in the back of a kitchen.
As the partnership grew from those shared moments, Bebee understood the weight behind the question when Kinney asked, “Do you want to try selling tacos?”
“The first thing I asked was, ‘Would you want to eat it?’” Bebee says. “Some people think of what’s marketable, and that’s important, but with us, talk of food is common and essential. It just felt organic. This idea seemed like something that came from the conversations we have all the time.”
Things progressed quickly as they put pencil to paper and worked through concepts, developed a menu, determined viability, and decided how best to scale up. There was a lot of trial and error before Gordito’s opened as a pop-up in April 2021, eventually landing at the Fishers Test Kitchen five months later.
The goals were simple when Gordito’s opened and the first tortilla was dropped in a little fat on the cooktop: to make a sandwich that featured Mexican flavors and build a taco that connected to his home in the Rust Belt. He’s quick to point out that he’s not trying to appropriate these flavors, but is using them out of respect.
Kinney acknowledges the thread that has run through much of his life, from the rugby trips to South America, to studying Spanish at Wabash, and the doors that language has opened for him.
“I cook the food I feel called to cook,” he says, “and we do that with a tremendous amount of humility. It’s not authentic Mexican. It’s Midwestern Mexican. It’s where we come from that creates this food, and what we share is a celebration of those cultures coming together. It warms you up from the inside out.”