John Hardy, ’86 grad of the Culinary Institute of America (he roomed his first year with Rocco DiSpirito)  opened his narrow, endearingly Western-themed restaurant El Dorado on Traverse City’s Front Street, cooking labor-of-love breakfasts and lunches from behind the kitchen’s tiny swinging saloon door.

He does a rich Tex-Mex spin on eggs Benedict, poached eggs on homemade buttermilk biscuits, with his own chorizo sausage patties, smoked cheddar and hollandaise. For lunch mini burgers, one each of bison, beef, and chorizo, come with fresh waffle-cut fries or homemade baked beans. He rethinks fried chicken using a cast iron skillet to pan-fry a succulent buttermilk-marinated half game hen. He serves it with smoked-cheddar mashed potatoes and homemade white gravy.

We weren’t wild about the wild boar fry bread tacos—the sauce was a bit sweet and the meat—chopped, not pulled—wasn’t as tender as we’d hoped. But even meat lovers won’t be disappointed with the vegetable empanadas, the contrasts at play between the crisp salsa, smoked vegetables and the amazingly tender empanada crust really work. Appetizers are feasts of their own: I loved the kaleidoscope of color on the poblano peppers, the stuffing of pine nuts, asiago, spinach, roasted pecans and portobellos offset by the mild garden-y bite of the pepper. Those who remember Hardy from his days at the Maple Leaf in Maple City no longer have to wax nostalgic about his bacon-wrapped shrimp on conbread appetizer. It still rocks. 

El Dorado is open for breakfast and lunch and Friday night dinners at 149 E. Front Street, 231-421-3228

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski