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Big Plans for a Small Space

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Two Mississippi natives bring Latin cuisine to the Central Business District.

Mark Gonsoulin and John Michael Wade both grew up in Biloxi, Miss., but the two didn’t meet until they were 21 years old. While both serving tables at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant after Hurricane Katrina, Gonsoulin and Wade became close friends.

“We’d be the ones that would host events, cook … things of that nature,” Gonsoulin remembers. “Food was always one of our passions.”

Before meeting at Ruby Tuesday, both friends had already gained restaurant experience in different ways. Gonsoulin’s father owned a restaurant in Biloxi. “He always let me work in there — making tea, doing dishes — and of course I felt important,” he says.

Wade, for his part, grew up in a family of restaurateurs. “I was born in the Mississippi delta, and my family, up to my great-grandmother, has always been in the restaurant business,” he explains. He grew up eating tacos made by his grandmother, whom he describes as Hispanic, and when his cousin opened a taqueria on the Mississippi coast, Wade learned as much as he could.

When Wade moved to New Orleans and began managing a restaurant, Gonsoulin stayed behind in Mississippi — working as a retail manager at Best Buy. In January 2012, Gonsoulin moved to New Orleans to join his friend; shortly thereafter, the partners made plans to open their own restaurant, La Casita, serving Latin and Latin-inspired cuisine.

La Casita, meaning “little house” or “cottage,” is true to its name. Nestled in a diminutive space on Julia Street in the Warehouse District, the restaurant is smaller than most — so Gonsoulin and Wade designed a brief menu that can be well executed in a small kitchen. “It was very challenging to create this menu, because we have a lot of limitations on what we can and can’t do,” Wade says. For example, there’s nothing fried on the restaurant’s menu, because there’s no space for a fryer. But creative dishes like the Jockamo, Cochon di Mexicana and Mission Tacos, and the restaurant’s unique chipotle Caesar salad, prove that kitchen size doesn’t matter.

In their first month of running La Casita, Gonsoulin and Wade needed to turn a profit or face shutting down immediately. “We didn’t start with a lot of money,” Gonsoulin says, and both partners laugh. “It was a pretty big dice roll,” Wade adds. They hit the CBD streets, shaking hands and handing out flyers.

Luckily, their hands-on social media marketing efforts and word-of-mouth marketing did the trick. La Casita gets a steady crowd of CBD businesspeople throughout its lunch hours, while neighbors and area residents often stop by in the evenings. The restaurant’s “standout” margaritas and daily happy hour specials don’t hurt, either, Gonsoulin says.

The two friends have been thrilled to hear more and more people talking about La Casita, less than a year after its opening. “Everything is just working out,” Wade reflects. “We’re really excited and happy to be in New Orleans where we are, and we really appreciate all the support we’ve gotten from the community.” eatlacasita.com