Last Call Modern Mexican

Angie Ripple

There is something about this place that continues to draw people here. A simple pandemic road trip to keep a vacation promise to his kids led Luis Valdovinos to Bozeman from Albuquerque, New Mexico in the summer of 2020. By fall, the magnetism had fully captivated him, and that October Luis made Bozeman home. It’s not just “something” that attracted him; it was the energy, the people, the food, everything he was looking for in terms of outdoor activities including hunting and fishing, and the connection as a chef to the food of the area. Luis welcomed me warmly on a brisk, sunny spring day into his home away from home, Last Call Modern Mexican at 19 S. Willson Ave. in downtown Bozeman.

Angie Ripple: How was Last Call Modern Mexican conceptualized?

Chef Luis Valdovinos: The Modern Mexican concept has been on my heart for a long time. I started out of a food truck and from there I started Last Call Mexican Eatery in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which was this little hole in the wall on the side of a building, kind of close to the proximity of Route 66, or Central in Albuquerque like from us [Last Call Modern Mexican]to Main Street now. We would open late night after the clubs and bars would close; all the college students and late-night-goers would come. From there, I built, two, three restaurants. This was a fast-casual concept, but I always had the dream to do something like this, where it’s full service, sit down, and I could put together a menu that was more based on the best dishes I’ve ever created—family dishes that have been passed down for generations—to be able to share that in a manner like this, where it’s not just about the food, it’s the ambiance, the way we serve and engage with our guests, the way we set up our decor. So the concept was birthed out of that. It was birthed out of me getting out of the Army and Corporate America. I left that to start my food truck, and here we are 10 years later and this dream concept of mine finally came to fruition So that’s Last Call Modern Mexican.

AR: What do you want people to experience when they walk through your doors?

LV: Well, one, I believe hospitality, in general, is something that we all, from the moment of literal birth, the first thing we feel is a smile, an embrace, and affection, right? And it’s almost the same thing when somebody walks into a restaurant. That host should smile at you, should welcome you and, in a way, embrace you into our home. From the moment you walk in, you should feel that energy of love. You sit down and you can notice the details, everything that we’ve done in this space; it’s not just thrown together, it’s put together, it’s designed. Everything is put there by design, and then the way our servers are engaging with everybody is also part of the love, and then in the food—we make everything by hand, from scratch. We source the freshest ingredients we possibly can. I am very conscientious about the ingredients I source—things like non-GMO corn coming straight from Central Mexico, so we can produce something completely real and authentic for our guests here in Bozeman. My vision is to showcase the authenticity, hospitality, and feel of a true Mexican restaurant, as well as the freshness and value of the food, honoring the ingredients and making sure we’re also honoring the traditions of time-tested techniques that have been around for thousands of years. Now we’re able to do that on a plate here. One of my mottos is ‘taste the love, love the taste.’ So, it’s not just how we’re creating the food and bringing it together, but it’s everything—there’s love in everything we do. So for me, that’s why I enjoy this so much—because it’s not work. It’s just my creative endeavor and this outlet; that’s what I would love people to experience is that love.

AR: What makes you unique in the Bozeman Food scene?

LV: In my opinion, there was a need for a more upscale, sit down, Mexican food restaurant, and not only a Mexican food restaurant, but one that really honored the food and served the ingredients at a high level, with the option to drink beer and wine, and some of the cocktails that we’ve been able to make with that beer and wine. So I think what sets us apart, number one is, yes, we are a different kind of Mexican restaurant in the community, but also, it’s very unique to the region that I grew up in. Baja Cuisine is an up-and-coming cuisine in terms of people getting to know about it or getting familiar with it or hearing about it. People always hear Baja, traveling to Baja, Cabo, the coast… all these places, but I’m actually bringing authentic Baja food to Bozeman, Montana. Also, the style of seafood that I do is very different than anything else—Ceviches and the way we do our beer-battered shrimp and fish [for example]. As well as just the fact that I’m here pretty much every night and engage with the guests as much as possible. I try to connect with just about every table that comes in. And not only because I want to talk to the guests and I like engaging with people—I want honest feedback as well. I put my name on the menu to hold myself accountable. I take pride in what I do and if there is a mistake, I take full responsibility. But also, if it’s good and you enjoy it, also know that this team was what helped me put this together and put this in front of you.

I think that makes it very different—we’re a very unique concept in the city, there’s really nobody else that does this style of food. So I think that’s kind of cool. And we’ve been told a lot by the local community that this is what Bozeman needed, and I’m very happy to hear that; I can’t express that enough.

AR: What would you say your regulars keep coming back for?

LV: The best-selling item is Birria. We sell it in different forms: tacos, burritos, and quesadillas. The Birria takes 14 hours to cook, 22 ingredients. It took me three years to perfect it to the point where it is now. I don’t know if a lot of people realize how long it takes to make a recipe like that, but it’s a labor of love. It’s usually a day-long process of breaking down spices and ingredients. There are all these steps that have to be taken in order to make sure that in the end, it comes out. There’s no cutting corners. I’ve seen guests crying when I’m coming up [saying], “This made me cry. Why?” Because it’s comfort food. It’s love. We’re putting our heart and soul into that food. And not only that, it’s a celebratory recipe. I believe in the transference of energy in food. And so, the positivity I have, the energy that I bring, and also the intention of what we’re doing when we make that food, the Birria, when people are eating it there’s no wonder why they’re happy, because it is love.

The second most popular item is the ceviches, the seafood. It’s a unique style of seafood; I feel that, because it’s different, because it’s unique when our guests want to shake up their weekly routine, or try something different, or get out of the monotony of whatever they’re doing at home. This is a completely different option. I feel that when you go out you want to try something completely different than what you could do at home, right? So I hear from a lot of our guests that they are coming for that.

And when we do specials on occasion, that’s always fun. That’s also a way for me as a chef to get feedback from our guests. So this whole menu has a lot of the items I was already going to put on, but a lot of it has been from the feedback of the local community saying, ‘yes, you got to keep this on the menu. I love this, this is amazing,’ or ‘it was good, but it wasn’t mind-blowing, it didn’t make me smile.’ And I say, ‘okay, I appreciate the feedback.’ So, I think our guests really like that. And the intimacy; it’s a cool space, people like hanging out. I think those are the things that people have been coming back for.

AR: What would you say is your personal favorite menu item?

LV: The Birria is definitely right up there. I would say the Birria and the ceviche are the two things I would eat the most. And then, I love creating specials, because it gets me into a creative element; I get to try new things, and I don’t put dishes on the menu that don’t wow me. So when I create a dish, if it’s making me feel something, I’m trying it and I’m like, ‘oh my God, what did I just do here? This is amazing. I’m so happy. I got chills.’ That’s the kind of food items I want to put on the menu.

AR: Do you have anything coming up that you would like our readers to know about?

LV: In May we’re going to be doing another Wine Wednesday event on May 4. It is a private event, reservation only. It’s a five-course tasting menu, with wine pairings. Everything is included: food, drink, and gratuities are already included. We’re only doing it right now once a month and it’s one seating at a community table. It’s a cool experience. We set up this one big table, we decorate the space a little differently, and I come out for every course. I tell a story or I talk about the food history, or explain why I picked this wine with this food, or how that inspiration came, or when I discovered this dish, etcetera. I am able to engage and, literally, we’re preparing everything and I’m coming out and saying, ‘here’s your food.’ Not only that, but I’m telling you exactly what we did, how we did it, and why we did it this way. At the end of the night, the connection is really cool. So I really want people to know about that, for sure.

AR: What do you personally enjoy most about being part of the Bozeman community?

LV: One thing I’ve come to find is that the community is very supportive—super, super supportive from the get-go, from even before I opened my restaurant—every vendor, every contractor, every purveyor—just super helpful, wanting to see the success of my business. And then once we opened, the same thing with the guests, return guests [asking] ‘How’s everything going? I’m glad you’re doing great. Happy to see your success.’ It has been a non-stop plethora of those kinds of experiences. People I run into in stores around the community are saying, ‘hey, I can’t wait to come in,’ or ‘I went to try your place, it was amazing,’ or ‘I heard about your place I can’t wait to go in,’ or ‘a friend of mine told me.’ To feel that kind of support, again, that’s what drew me here was the energy and the people, the way I felt that something was pulling me magnetically to Bozeman is the same thing that keeps fueling my fire to show up every day and pour my heart out and put all my love into this food and what I do.

And so, yeah, I think that’s been my favorite thing about this. It’s been not only the community, but even in the people that have come in to help me as a team. The team that I’ve been able to build here has been great. So, just people in general have really been my favorite part of this whole journey. I’m a solo entrepreneur and I’ve opened several restaurants; this is my seventh restaurant, considering food trucks, fast casuals, and whatnot. And I don’t feel like I’m doing it alone, I feel like the community is a part of this. Everybody that’s engaged with me, that just even gave me the thumbs up and said, ‘hey, you’re doing a great job.’ That’s amazing. That’s what it’s about for me. So yeah, that’s been great. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to open a restaurant.

Let yourself be drawn to the energy of Last Call Modern Mexican. You will experience something special from the food, and from the people creating it.

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