There's a reason why Paul Backer and Michael Knox have leased space in a Minnetonka strip mall for their new restaurant, Toma Mojo Grill (12977 Ridgedale Dr.).
"We see a decent-sized void of independent restaurants in Minnetonka and Plymouth," said Backer. "There's a path to having a dedicated community following outside of Minneapolis."
The restaurant will celebrate Spanish and Portuguese culinary traditions, funneling roast chicken and roast pork (and vegan sausages) into sandwiches, plates and family-style platters and pairing them with sauces and side dishes.
"If you think of what Shake Shack is to McDonald's, that's what we'll be for KFC or the forgotten Boston Market," said Backer.
The sauces will include green mojo, piri piri, habañero mojo ("If you're feeling daring," said Backer) and other classic flavor profiles. Side dishes will include fried Brussels sprouts, French fries, chicken wings and a grain salad with avocados, herbs and a citrus vinaigrette.
Backer and Knox became friends during their overlapping tenures at Tilia (2726 W. 43rd St., Mpls., tiliampls.com), where Backer was in the kitchen and Knox in the front of the house. Backer's immersion in Portuguese and Spanish fare will come as no surprise to any of their fellow Tilians.
"It's what I was always cooking for myself," he said. "It's an underappreciated cooking culture. The whole Mediterranean diet is rich, but it's not heavy, so you get the best of both worlds."
Toma Mojo Grill (the Toma is short for tomato, and Mojo is pronounced mo-ho) will occupy a former Noodles & Co. space ("We don't have to do a ton to flip it to what we're looking for," said Backer), with a 60-seat dining room and space for an additional 30 diners on the patio. The bar will serve beer and wine.
"And sangria," said Backer.
He's describing the counter service operation as "fast casual 2.0," a blended service model at lunch and dinner that will allow diners to order additional dishes and beverages without having to return to the counter and stand in line.
As for an opening date, "mid-soon" is the closest that Backer would commit, given the vagaries of construction, inspection and other startup concerns. But he confirmed that it will happen in 2021.
Until then, get a taste of what's in store at Toma Mojo Grill via pop-ups at Falling Knife Brewing Co. (783 NE. Harding St., Mpls., fallingknife.beer), which Backer and Knox will stage most Saturdays and Sundays this spring. Check the Toma Mojo Grill Instagram and Facebook pages for details.