Delaware’s downtown food scene is set to expand with the addition of two new restaurants in the buildings formerly occupied by 12 West and SmOHked on West William Street. Queso Fuego will open today from 5-10 p.m. for a limited test run, while the next door Kelly’s Island Kitchen is expected to open its doors in the coming weeks.
After spending the past five years living in Florida and looking to open his own restaurant, owner TD Rider jumped at the opportunity to return to his hometown when informed that two buildings already fitted as restaurants had become available.
“I couldn’t pass it up,” Rider told The Gazette. “I didn’t even blink. I was like, ‘Yep, I’m on my way.’ It was pretty much turnkey. We bought minimal equipment.”
The conjoined restaurants will carry decidedly different menus, but most of the dishes will be uniquely prepared by Rider, himself, who carries a true passion for the dishes he serves.
“It’s all my recipes on both sides,” Rider said. “There are some different flavors people may have never seen or heard about. I’m actually going to do most of the cooking … I love cooking, and I love teaching it.”
Queso Fuego will offer a menu of “fun spinoffs” to traditional Tex-Mex dishes, Rider said, while his hope for Kelly’s Island Kitchen is to bring a “tropical, seafood” palate to central Ohio. “I kind of brought Florida with me,” Rider joked of the tropical themes displayed throughout both the menu and decor of Kelly’s Island Kitchen.
The opening of Rider’s first seafood restaurant will carry even more significance given the name it bears. His mother, Kelly, was a longtime teacher at Carlisle Elementary School in Delaware who passed away in May after four different bouts with brain cancer over a 14-year span. Pictures of Kelly adorn one of the corner walls of the restaurant, to be known as “Kelly’s Corner,” as a tribute to his late mother.
“A lot of people will assume it’s Kelly’s Island from Lake Erie, but people will come in and see the corner, and we’ll probably put something on the back of the menu as well,” Rider said.
An avid deep-sea fisherman, Rider plans to offer a regular menu of some of the tastiest fish found in the ocean, including grouper, tuna, red snapper, and wahoo, which he intends to use for his fish tacos. For those really searching for the full seafood experience — and willing to bear the cost —, a seafood tower will be offered that will include fresh oysters that will be flown in overnight, according to Rider, as well as crab legs, shrimp, and a bottle of champagne to wash it all down.
While the seafood tower will land on the higher end of the menu in terms of cost, Rider said he doesn’t want people to be intimidated to come into the restaurant. “I want people to feel like they’re on vacation. I don’t want anything to be overly fancy,” he said.
Those who are not fond of seafood will also still have creative options. Rider said there will be other items on the menu such as a teriyaki pineapple grilled chicken dish, piña colada coleslaw, and more. However, he added that while many people believe they don’t like fish, he encourages people to give him a chance to change their minds.
“I could be wrong, but I don’t think you’ve ever had fish like I’m preparing,” Rider said. “Seafood, in general, is kind of like candy. There are so many different tastes and textures, but there is something you’re going to like. People say, ‘Well, it tastes like fish.’ If it tastes like fish, run away from it.”
Both restaurants are outfitted with a full bar and bar seating, each including six taps that will include local favorites. Rider intends to partner with Land-Grant Brewing Company for custom beers for each of the two restaurants in the spring.
The quaintness of both buildings — each side has a capacity of around 40 people — creates an intimate vibe that also serves to simplify things for Rider and the restaurant staff. When the weather begins to turn, Kelly’s Island Kitchen will have the benefit of additional outdoor seating. Rider said he aims to turn the outdoor space in front of the restaurant into something not unlike a “Vegas day pool,” with fake green grass, outdoor couches, sails, and real palm trees.
In addition to the limited number of customers at any given time, Rider said both menus will also be relatively short, with a handful of dishes offered year-round while others are rotated through the seasons. By keeping away from an expansive menu, Rider said he can also ensure that the dishes are prepared with the same consistency and allure he expects to provide to the dining experience.
Given that today’s test run coincides with a First Friday event, Rider hopes the added presence of the community in downtown Delaware will make a good turnout as Queso Fuego prepares for its full launch. Reservations are not needed, but there be wait times.
Rider said he will likely take the weekend off to assess the test run and make any minor changes necessary before opening up fully on Monday. Once open, Queso Fuego will be open Monday-Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and until 10:30 p.m. on the weekend.
Rider added that once the weather warms up, he hopes to keep Kelly’s Island Kitchen open later into the evening.