PALM HARBOR — Chris Fragale, a self-proclaimed "crazy chef,'' mastered the art of rolling a burrito in Mexico City.
He'd walk down the streets, watching people selling lunch from trucks.
"I worked for General Mills at the time — about 1975. You'd see people making street food — burritos, tacos, grilled corn,'' he said. "Folding a burrito is something you learn by watching. It's a snap.''
Fragale, founder of the Ballyhoo Grill in Tarpon Springs and owner of City Fish in Oldsmar and Ozona Blue in Palm Harbor, is putting to use some of what he saw in Mexico City. He has just opened his newest restaurant, the Burrito Bus Stop and Cantina, in Palm Harbor's Fountains Plaza.
"We planned a soft opening, with a few people, but word got out and it was crazy busy,'' said Fragale, 61.
Opening day brought 450 customers and $7,000 in sales. Customers stood in line, waiting to either venture inside or order take-out at the brightly painted bus, an old school bus Fragale purchased from a Pasco County farmer.
The menu includes Oysters Taco-Fella (corn tortilla, fried oysters, creamed spinach, bacon and cheese ), tortas (a Mexican sandwich), camarones (shrimp sauteed with poblano peppers and corn in a Mexican cream sauce), chile rellanos stuffed with Chihuahua cheese (a soft, white cheese with Mexican origins), pollo mole (chicken in a mild chocolate chili sauce) as well as seafood and vegetarian dishes.
For adult beverages, choices include margaritas like the Miracle (made with tequila, Grand Marnier, champagne, orange juice and Blue Sugar rum) or the Jalapeno. ("Only for those who like hot stuff,'' said Fragale.)
There's also a mojito menu as well as $5 sangria.
"It's a Cuban sangria that we serve at all the restaurants. The recipe was my friend's, Jesus Exposito, one of the founders of the old Tio Pepe's of Clearwater. It is phenomenal,'' he said.
For dessert, there are items such as a chocolate taco filled with flan.
Fragale's days as a restaurateur go back to St. Louis, where he opened Fragale's located on the Hill, the city's Italian district, when he was 17. "I opened it by borrowing money from parents, grandmas, uncles,'' he said.
He went on to work for Ruby Tuesday, opening seven locations across the country.
For General Mills, he oversaw openings of several Casa Gallardo eateries in Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida.
“The Burrito Bus Stop is my 157th opening,'' he said. "And you know, opening this Mexican restaurant, I have to say, is my true love.
Nick Marku, vice president of the new business, started working for Fragale 13 years ago. He's still amazed at what his boss creates.
"A few weeks ago, I was making mole sauce, and I got together what I thought the ingredients would be. Well, he came in and began rattling off different ingredients like the names of about 40 different peppers. I was in awe,'' Marku said.
The start-up investment for the Burrito Bus Stop was $300,000, and Fragale says the location at the Fountains Plaza was key.
"When big companies go out and look where to start up, they look at traffic count, and there's always traffic on U.S. 19,'' he said. "You should see it at 7 a.m. It's bumper to bumper."
For those early morning commuters, Fragale plans to "take the restaurant up a notch.'' In a few weeks, he will offer breakfast. Those heading to work down U.S. 19 will be able to call ahead to place an order for either a $3 taco or a $5 burrito.
It will be waiting for them when they get to the Bus Stop.
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4163.