Austin in a Pocket: The Doughminican
With a trombone in one hand and a knife in the other, Chef Melvin Mendez makes empanadas from scratch on Austin’s East Side
By Regine Malibiran
Photographs by Mackenzie Smith Kelley
Chef Melvin Mendez, owner of The Doughminican on E 11th Street, moved from New York City to Austin because he got tired of the snow. There is a unique mixture of both a gregarious, easy-going attitude as well as a dedicated work ethic in his demeanor. One can immediately tell that Mendez is the kind of chef that knows a large portion of his customers by name.
A native of the Dominican Republic, Mendez immigrated to the United States as a teenager in pursuit of education. The Dominican Republic has a strong hospitality and tourism industry and Mendez’s plan was to get a degree in Hospitality Management to use back home. However, when Mendez got to school, he quickly discovered a passion for culinary arts.
“Colors, shapes and what you can make with a simple tool like a knife changed my life,” Mendez fondly recalls.
One semester of culinary arts classes convinced Mendez to switch disciplines. To him, cooking was the perfect mixture of art, science and creativity. The decision completely transformed his initial plan. Instead of moving back to the Dominican Republic, he ended up staying in New York City for 16 years before setting up shop in Austin.
The Doughminican has been parked at Kenny Dorham’s Backyard, a location known for its diverse cultural eateries and events, for a year and a half. Mendez always keeps his trombone close by, looking out for impromptu opportunities to spark a jam session on the music stage. When he’s not playing music himself, his trailer often plays jazz, blues and big band music.
When the weather permits, at night Mendez lights a fire pit where guests gather to hang out, eat his food and have a beer.
The trailer’s main dish is the empanada, a staple of Dominican cuisine. Empanadas are popular across South America for a reason, but Mendez believes that what sets his apart is “how well-prepared they are.” Mendez is classically trained and keeps a lean kitchen, maximizing every inch of his limited space. Before each shift he meticulously prepares his mise en place, a French technique of having all ingredients measured and cut before cooking, so that he can make his empanadas to order quickly. He makes his own chicken stock and simmers his proteins for hours. Everything is made from scratch, including their branded dough.
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The operation continues during Austin’s stay-at-home era, and Mendez is serving empanadas daily to customers who can walk up to his food truck and maintain a safe distance.
Mendez serves three different varieties of empanada: beef, chicken and ratatouille. The beef empanada is cooked in a red wine and broth bone reduction, oregano (a classic Dominican herb), red and green peppers, tomato paste, celery and onions. The ratatouille empanada is their vegetarian option and is filled with sautéed vegetables and spices. Mendez’s sous chef is his mother, Zoila Esperanza, who consistently provided her family with home-cooked meals during his childhood.
“She always sent me to school with my belly full,” remembers Mendez.
From a young age, Mendez knew the value of a thoughtfully prepared meal. He’s always grateful for the customers that eat his empanadas for lunch then come back for dinner as well as the ones that return with a handful of friends.
“I’m feeding I don’t know how many people with my two hands and one knife,” says Mendez proudly.
Every day, Mendez strives to share his food and cheerful spirit with more and more people. The Doughminican represents not just his dream but some of the most beloved aspects of the home he left behind to pursue it.
“Don’t miss out,” Mendez says. “We put our heart into it.”
The World in a Pocket is dedicated to exploring the world through the lens of a dumpling. From mandu to empanadas, spanakopita to gyoza, pierogi to Pop-Tarts, this is our love letter to pockets worldwide and the stories they tell. These beloved staples all share a similar food-inside-of-food structure, while providing a delicious way to understand our world. We are excited to bring TRIBEZA readers Austin in a Pocket, where Regine Malibiran has teamed up with TWIP co-founder and photographer Mackenzie Smith Kelley to shine a light on local pocket makers.