Marie Mertz had been friends with Manny Singh for several years when he half-jokingly suggested they open a restaurant together. He knew the food business; his family operated a pizza place. She loved international cuisine. So she humored him with a supportive response that day but was later shocked to find that Singh had secretly signed a lease in an Elk Grove strip mall. “I got us a restaurant,” he said.
The nondescript, unmarked kitchen in a strip mall became Todo un Poco, the best local restaurant you’ve possibly never heard of. That was 15 years ago, and Mertz and Singh have since married and established a committed neighborhood following. The Mexican/Italian bistro showcases Mertz’s love for international flavors, her nearly obsessive work ethic, an unquenchable thirst for learning and a whole lot of red paint. There’s plenty of spontaneity, too. Marie has no formal culinary education, but she’s a natural hostess, and on many nights patrons line the sidewalk waiting for a table and a slice of Mexican lasagna or a bowl of mussels cooked in chorizo sauce.
Todo un poco means “a little bit of everything,” and that’s exactly how Mertz describes her strategy. “I do a little bit of everything,” she says. She runs the bistro’s operations, cooks, builds menus, chooses the daily specials, buys fresh produce, trains staff, handles community relations and hand-selects her wines. She’s proud of being in business for so many years, but “who’s counting when you’re having fun?” she says.
In addition to a core menu of Mexican and Italian dishes, Todo un Poco offers a variety of items with other ethnic influences. “I like to do crazy things with food,” she says. Don’t like what you see? Can’t make up your mind? The kitchen will whip up something different. Vegans and vegetarians are warmly welcomed, and the utmost respect is paid to dietary restrictions and requests, including gluten-free options.
“If it doesn’t look good to me, I won’t serve it to my customers. I always treat my patrons as if they were in my home kitchen having dinner with me and my family.”
Marie Mertz, owner, Todo Un Poco
Mertz’s roots can help explain her ever-expanding palate. She grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico. Her mother, who also loves to cook, is Mexican and American Indian. Mertz’s late father was a German Jew. Her father’s best friend — who was Italian — also spent time cooking in the Mertz kitchen. “We had a very international feel in our household. I thought it was normal,” she says.
It was through a multicultural family that she learned about globally common ingredients. “For instance, you might think that cilantro is Mexican, however, it has Asian origins,” she says. “Or people think curry is unique to Indian or Thai cooking, when in fact we use it in Mexico as well.” Mertz has added Caribbean and Portuguese flavors to her menu and is busy studying and buying wines to pair with her new creations. Signature dishes include spaghetti with carnitas in a mild oregano sauce and the classic Mexican dish called mole, which features 30 ingredients, including chocolate. “People will drive many miles just for our mole,” she says.
She picked up even more influence from her in-laws, who are Punjabi. “I learned Indian cooking by being around [Manny’s] family and educating myself about new ingredients and new cooking techniques,” she says. In fact, one of the bistro’s most popular dishes is an East Indian pizza topped with white sauce, three cheeses, cauliflower, potatoes and cilantro cooked in Indian masala.
It was Mertz’s grandmother, however, who helped to shape her culinary philosophy. It was “her way of life” to seek out fresh ingredients for the day, Mertz says. “When she came to visit us, I was happy to join her on her quest to find good food at local farms.” The two traveled from one farm to another, purchasing tomatoes and onions from one and cucumbers from another. They bought fresh chicken to be killed later that day and fished in the local lake.
Today, Mertz carries on those farm-to-fork ideals by frequenting her favorite local vendor, Stone Lake Farms. “I like to go and see whatever is in season that week. I have coffee with the owner and find out what is fresh. I also invite my friends to help him with harvesting,” she says. “If it doesn’t look good to me, I won’t serve it to my customers. I always treat my patrons as if they were in my home kitchen having dinner with me and my family.”
The restaurant doesn’t have a traditional advertising budget. Mertz relies on Facebook and word of mouth to keep the customers coming — and they do. Until a few years ago, there wasn’t even an address visible on the building. Signage is expensive, she laments.
But slowly word has spread about Mertz, her storytelling, her gregariousness, her menu and her staff, some of whom have invested in the business. “It’s not fair to have a large staff of workers who all work fewer hours. We have a good team, and when we all work hard, then everyone wins.”
It’s a pretty happy ending for a woman who was thrust into restaurant ownership without a vision or a plan. “But you learn as you go,” she says. “My husband and I each put all of our savings into this business when we started. I used money for the restaurant that was meant for my graduate studies. We took out loans that had to be paid back. We just kept going and working hard.”
Mertz knew that when the restaurant doors opened, she needed to make the most of her opportunity and treat each day as a learning experience. “I never actually planned to run a restaurant,” she says. “But then I realized that I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.” That can-do attitude is reminiscent of a life-lesson she learned from her grandmother, who Mertz says told her: “‘Si vas al baile, bailale.’ — If you go to a dance, dance. Otherwise, don’t go.”