From food trucks to farmers market stands to restaurants and booths inside Union Street Market food hall at Electric Works, Fort Wayne’s food scene is expanding and evolving.

"We are seeing a huge influx of international cuisines and a diverse range of food offerings coming to our area,” says culinary entrepreneur Flora Barrón. “This can be attributed, in part, to the significant presence of immigrants residing in Fort Wayne, coupled with a growing sense of cultural pride and openness among individuals from varied backgrounds, who are increasingly eager to showcase the culinary treasures of their heritage."

Across the city, food entrepreneurs are carrying on rich family traditions, expanding the pallets of Midwest consumers and providing memorable, one-of-a-kind experiences.

These are a few of their stories.

Thao Nguyen

Born in South Vietnam, Thao Nguyen immigrated to the U.S. with her family at age three. And although she found a diverse, welcoming community on Fort Wayne’s South side, she had trouble finding any food like her mother’s sweet and salty South Vietnamese cooking at local restaurants.

In fact, when she was in high school, only one restaurant served Vietnamese (Saigon), and it didn’t offer street food, like banh mi sandwiches, which Nguyen and her family had come to know and love.

“Every single alley or street has vendors who make these sandwiches in Vietnam,” Nguyen says. “Vietnam is strongly influenced by the French, so banh mi bread is crisp, like a French baguette with a soft center.” (The sandwich is then filled with some variation of meat, tofu, pickled veggies, soy sauce, mayo, and cilantro.)

After high school, Nguyen teamed up with her brother Will Le as chef and her niece Hien Le to open what they thought would be a small Vietnamese street food joint on the city’s North side. They called it Banh Mi Barista, and they served Vietnamese coffee, sandwiches, noodle bowls and egg rolls.

Since then, they’ve expanded their menu and opened a larger second location on the South side, as well as a food truck for special events. In doing so, they’ve led Fort Wayne’s boba tea craze and started baking bread in-house for sandwiches. They have a new restaurant and bakery in the works, too.

Nguyen says Fort Wayne’s food scene, particularly on the South side, is rich and diverse. She recommends burgers at Bravas, drinks and tacos at Mercado, pork chops at Tolon, or drinks and fine dining by Chef Aaron Butts at Copper Spoon.

At her restaurants, try the classic banh mi or salty pho. Her team also offers occasional Korean corn dog days on the food truck, experimenting with corndog bread sandwiches topped with Oreos, Hot Cheetos, cotton candy or Pop Rocks.

For drinks, get an avocado smoothie or Vietnamese coffee. Nguyen is adding a new “egg coffee” flavor, reminiscent of sea salt and crème brulée.

“What’s special about the culinary arts is that they’re limitless,” she says. “You’re the only person who will limit yourself, and if you do a dish well, no matter how crazy, somebody will appreciate it.”

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Esli and Johnny Perez, owners of Te Gusto Hospitality

Johnny & Esli Barrón Perez

Johnny Perez always wanted to be head chef of a restaurant. He met his wife, Esli Barrón Perez (daughter of Flora Barrón), in high school. But they didn’t marry until he graduated culinary school and realized his dream as Head Chef at Proximo, a Latin fare spot in Downtown Fort Wayne owned by local restaurateur James Khan of ObiCai Restaurant Management.

Thanks to mentorship from Khan and others, the Perezes were inspired to launch a venture of their own called Mercado, paying homage to their Mexican-American heritage and Johnny’s family cooking on the West Coast. It started as a food truck during the pandemic and soon became a Cali-Mex spot on The Landing.

Recently, the Perezes have been busy opening two more restaurants as Te Gustó Hospitality: Papi’s Pizza, a nostalgic, 90s-themed pizza joint next door to Mercado, and Spoke & Ivy, a New American cafe on the up-and-coming West Main Street corridor. Johnny also hosts a podcast and YouTube channel, supporting fellow culinary creators in Fort Wayne.

“People tend to think there’s competition in the food industry, but we see it as: The more great stuff that’s happening in Fort Wayne, the more it adds to the city’s density and gives people a reason to visit us, too,” Johnny says.

Food-wise, he recommends Mercado’s tacos, like the Chori-Queso, using house-made queso, or the popular Cali AF. On special occasions, he also makes a traditional Mexican birria, or meat stew, and he and Esli pride themselves in Mercado’s authentic fusions, like its Chinese-Mexican Night Market Noodles.

“The inspiration for that dish was the Mexicali region of Northwestern Mexico, where a huge Chinese population settled in the early 1900s, resulting in flavors that melt together really well,” Esli says.

Around town, they suggest exploring more unique local eats, like West Coast Grille’s pho and tom-yum fried rice, or Haru Sushi & Izakaya’s Japanese (sourcing fish from Chicago).

“Restaurants in Fort Wayne are moving away from huge menus toward more niche offerings,” Esli says. “It helps chefs hone their craft.”

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  • Mercado, 111 W. Columbia St., Suite 103
  • Papi’s Pizza, 111 W. Columbia St., Suite 102
  • Spoke & Ivy, 1402 W. Main St. (coming winter 2023-2024)

James Khan owner of Obicai Restaurant Group

James Khan

Perhaps no one has diversified Fort Wayne’s food scene like James Khan. The entrepreneur behind ObiCai Restaurant Management Group runs an ever-expanding, eclectic family of restaurants, including BakerStreet Steakhouse (2009), The Hoppy Gnome (2015), Gnometown Brewing (2016), Proximo (2018), and Gnometown Brewing Co. on The Landing (2023).

As the half-Indian son of a single mother who grew up in a trailer park, Khan didn’t consider himself a “foodie” when he started working fine dining in his teens. But as he worked his way up to management to put himself through college for engineering and provide for his family, he came to appreciate the subtleties of well-prepared meals. And realized he could apply his engineer’s mind to problem-solving for guests, too.

“Each person who comes in is having a different experience, and on the fly, you can find ways to make their day better,” Khan says.

This knack for hospitality and a series of fortuitous events led him to connect with investor Doug Wood who salvaged Fort Wayne’s Baker Street Steakhouse from financial ruin during the Great Recession. As part of a work-to-own deal with Wood, Khan turned Baker Street into one of the city’s premier fine-dining establishments, known for its ribeye, which he still recommends (particularly the Bacon & Egg).

Over the years, Khan has established more partnerships to open the Hoppy Gnome and Gnometown Brewing, bringing a taste of a Chicago sports pub to Downtown. He’s also gotten in on some of the city’s most transformative projects, opening Proximo Latin fare at Skyline Plaza and a second location for Gnometown on The Landing.

Food-wise, he recommends Proximo’s Breakfast Skillet or Shrimp and Grits. For something casual, try a sweet and spicy “No Ragrets” burger at Gnometown or tacos named for Khan himself at the Hoppy Gnome: “Wrath of Khan.” (“I like spicy things,” he explains.)

Ever-humble, he credits his success to his faith in God, his relationships, and his 350-plus employees who’ve built ObiCai’s brand around “going beyond what’s expected.” He encourages visitors to explore the breadth of Fort Wayne’s food scene — from classics, like Coney Island and Taj Mahal, to a new generation in Junk Ditch, Tolon, Mercado, Hideout 125, and Laz's Cuban Cafe.

“You can come here just to experience food at a fraction of the cost of Chicago,” Khan says. “Fort Wayne is family-friendly, too.”

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Flora Barron, owner of Pikoso Burrito Company

Flora Barrón

In Mexico, Flora Barrón’s family owned a popular chain of fresh-fruit juiceries, so she long dreamed of being an entrepreneur herself someday. But she didn’t realize that dream until about two decades after immigrating to Fort Wayne with her husband and young daughter.

“We initially wanted to save money and expand my husband’s veterinary practice,” Barrón says.

Once her family was raised, she started small, launching Flora & Lily's Mexican Kitchen food truck with her sister, Lilia Horta, selling made-to-order tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and burrito bowls with authentic Mexican Chihuahua cheese and family recipes. This gave Barrón the confidence to open a second truck and cafe with her husband in 2020 called Kanela, carrying on her family legacy of fresh juices and smoothies alongside grab-and-go breakfast and lunch items and coffee.

“In my country, we use whole fruits with no additives in our juices and smoothies, so that’s what I’ve tried to bring to Fort Wayne,” Barrón says.

She recommends her popular Energy Elixir smoothie with green tea, pineapple, kale, avocado, and chia seeds and her signature Flora’s Latte with lavender and vanilla. (She sources regional coffees and pastries, too.)

Recently, she and her husband have opened a Kanela II drive-thru in New Haven and launched a burrito stand inside Union Street Market at Electric Works called Pikoso Burrito Co.

“Our Pollo al Pastor is one of my favorite dishes,” Barrón says. “We marinate the chicken for days and pair it with a made-from-scratch grilled pineapple salsa that’s fresh, sweet and spicy.”

Whether you visit Pikoso or Kanela, Barrón recommends exploring nearby local restaurants and shops at Union Street Market or The Landing. She sees Fort Wayne’s culture growing thanks to a new, diverse generation of patrons and entrepreneurs, like her daughter, Esli Barrón Perez, who owns a restaurant on The Landing, too.

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Cameron Brooks, owner of Brooks BBQ

Cameron Brooks

Cameron Brooks is a fourth-generation BBQ chef who flipped his first ribs while sitting on his grandmother’s knee when he was six years old. But growing up, he didn’t plan to take over the family business. Instead, he assumed he would be a singer.

In fact, after his family closed their beloved Brooks BBQ on the city’s East side, he only started selling meals again to fund his career, singing gospel and R&B. By 2017, he was signed to a record label and made it all the way to ABC’s “American Idol,” where he got a chance to audition — and cook ribs — for the show’s all-star cast: Ryan Seacrest, Luke Bryant, Lionel Richie and Katy Perry.

“Ryan Seacrest is an avid vegetarian, but I got him to eat my ribs on camera, and he liked them,” Brooks says. “That’s one of my proudest accomplishments.”

He returned to Fort Wayne with a passion to fire up the grill again. With the guidance of fellow Fort Wayne entrepreneurs, Charles and Audi Law of One Love Food Truck and Ziffles Zip N Go, Brooks moved his business into a food truck, and eventually became one of the first vendors at Union Street Market at Electric Works.

Today, he recommends visiting on a Sunday for his special soul food menu, or any day of the week for rib tips with his mom’s creamy mac and cheese. Brooks’s ribs are smothered in his grandmother’s special sauce: A vinegar-based BBQ (hot or mild). He also offers a sweet and sour (traditional BBQ) and a special combo Brooks 2.0 sauce.

“That’s my grandma’s original mild topped with sweet and sour,” Brooks says. “You can get a hot version, too, and that’s my personal favorite.”

Brooks hopes to open a second restaurant in Fort Wayne someday. For now, he recommends checking out the work of his friends and fellow artists: Dance parties by Music Lovers Lounge, trivia with AM2Funny and comedy by Who Got Snacks.

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This article originally appeared in our 2024 Dining Guide: The Flavor of Fort Wayne. View online