Chef Michael “Curly” McRae, left, and Gabe Holden at Three Goats Baltimore. Photo by Brandon Block.
Chef Michael “Curly” McRae, left, and Gabe Holden at Three Goats Baltimore. Photo by Brandon Block.

“It’s only him and I,” says chef Michael “Curly” McRae. “We’re the dishwasher, security, everything.”

“Him” would be Gabe Holden, who, along with McRae, launched the new Three Goats Baltimore, an outrageously down-to-earth taco and arepa dive in Mount Vernon on Jan. 28. Although the two met only nine years ago, they spent their childhoods orbiting each other in East Baltimore.

Holden says his formative taco experiences all happened in the East Baltimore of the 1990s, when Hispanic immigrants began moving to the area around N. Montford Avenue and E. Fayette Street where he grew up, just a handful blocks from McRae at the now-demolished Lafayette Courts.

After moving out of his mom’s house at age 14, McRae says cooking became a lifeline for him in an otherwise challenging environment. Starting out as a dishwasher, he eventually (without any formal training) became a head chef at a caterer and later started his own company.

Tucked into a basement storefront at 7 W. Preston Street, Three Goats can be easy to miss–I almost walked right past it. If you duck in, you’ll find a minimalist menu that features tacos, empanadas, arepas, jerk chicken and rotating specials all for $5. You can also find house-made hot sauces, salsas and their special plantain hummus, all of which McRae and Holden prepare with ingredients from local farms within 25 miles of the city.

As Mexican food becomes more popular across the country, Holden warns against separating simple foods like tacos from their context as cheap, filling street food, or making them into a “bougie status” thing.

“Arepas are a poverty food,” Holden says, reflecting back on summers he spent in Venezuela with family as a kid.

Three Goats is the culmination of McRae and Holden’s nine-year cooking partnership, which includes Cudah Blue Catering, the Charm City Gourmet food truck and Pico Planet, their high-end food product line for salsas and hot sauces.

Baltimore Fishbowl: So before Mexican food you guys were mostly doing barbecue, or were you always doing both?

Gabe Holden: When I left culinary school and the French Culinary Institute, I went out to the West Coast, and I was like, well what’s the opposite of fine dining? You know, I’m gonna find some hole in the wall and work my ass off, and that’s what I did, I worked at the Golden Star Vietnamese, its basically a pho joint, and what’s funny is, the Chinese restaurant I went to all the time as a kid, it’s the Golden Star on Greenmount Avenue. And that was the first Asian place that I worked at out on the West Coast. I went from there to a few Mexican places, then I went to another Asian place. I was really just trying to get my fill of as much authentic cooking as I could.

BFB: Does any of the stuff that you guys cook come from stuff you cooked as a child, from your parents?

Michael McRae: I got into the industry–I’m 41–I started out when I was 14, started out as a dishwasher at Horn & Horn Cafeteria, which was located right there on Loch Raven and Hillen. But I used to always knock my dishes out so fast because I was mesmerized about what the cooks were doing. And I have always loved how everyone who came into the restaurant adored the chefs. Everybody else they didn’t give two shits about. But the chefs, they got so much respect, so much love, and I wanted to be that.

GH: They come in and they do no work…

MM: (laughs) Right. So it was like, I wanted to be that guy.

BFB: Did you have a focus on the kind of food you specialized in?

MM: Soul food is my thing. I love soul food. I’m a fast learner. So, you know, Gabe has taught me a whole helluva lot, and I’ve had a lot of chefs that I worked under that I really couldn’t relate with, because they were more stern–my way, no way, highway, or whatever.

GH: And I can’t stand that. I can’t stand that.

BFB: I think a lot of chefs are that way.

MM: They are.

GH: That’s the reason why I left French Culinary Institute, because I didn’t wanna be that guy. You know, when you’ve gotta bum around in the trenches for eight, 10, 12 years, only perfecting technique, you cannot be creative, you cannot go outside of your box.

BFB: Was that your experience in the places you worked or in [culinary] school? Or both?

GH: That was my experience in the French Culinary Institute and their job was to mold your brain into the French way. That was their job. And because you come out of the French Culinary Institute, you’re going to other restaurants, you go into, they know who you were trained by, they know how you were trained. And if your expression of French technique is sub-par, your life is gonna be miserable, and I just, I didn’t want to be that.

Every cook who is in here is my partner. He says I’ve taught him a lot of shit, he has taught me a hell of a lot of shit about dealing with people, customers, I mean. I am a kitchen, back-of-the-house guy. And culturally, everybody has different ways of cooking everything.

MM: Hence the term, ‘fry it hard.’

GH: Hence the term ‘fry it hard,’ right, with fries –

MM: Because that’s everything, you go anywhere right now and order a chicken box, you can just be standing behind someone ordering a chicken box and you’ll just hear them always say, ‘Fry it hard.’ That’s actually a term that’s probably used a million times in this city a day. Fry it hard.

BFB: It just means like overcook it?

GH: Old white ladies from UB come over and want their shit fried hard, and that’s Baltimore.

MM: And that’s french fries, chicken –

GH: (affected) I want my burger well done, and I want my broccoli well done. I’m like, I can destroy anything for you.

BFB: What was growing up in East Baltimore like, and how did food enter the equation for you both?

MM: I moved out of my mom’s house when I was 14. I had my own apartment when I was 15. But I continued to go to school. I graduated, I got kicked out of all the city schools, because of fighting and stuff like that, normal kid shit.

GH: That’s how I ended up at Northern High School with Rob Long from 105.7. It was the only city school that took other city school expulsions. It’s now W.E.B. Du Bois off of Northern Parkway and Hillen Road. It was the Northern Vikings.

MM: Right, and I graduated from Woodlawn High School.

GH: Imagine a high school where probably three quarters of the kids had been expelled from other schools.

MM: Both of us, our stories are similar. Both from East Baltimore, how he says his parents left at a young age, went back to Venezuela when he was still a young lad. Me, 14, moving out of my mom’s house.

GH: Food saved us.

MM: The food absolutely saved us. From this city. Because no matter how many people I know, and how much love people show me throughout this city, we still live in a dangerous city.

BFB: Your menu has jerk chicken, a Caribbean dish, and you’ve got the tacos from Mexico, arepas from Venezuela–it sounds like there are some different influences coming together here.

GH: Right, but actually tacos are a Baltimore thing for me.

BFB: Really?

GH: Tacos are something that I grew to love here, and experienced elsewhere. You know, especially in East Baltimore, I remember when my dad and my uncle Umberto were the Hispanic population in East Baltimore. And then within a few years you could go around East Baltimore not knowing how to speak English. For me, that’s awesome.

I grew up with those little hard-shelled tacos that you get from the yellow box, and I remember eating a taco over on Eastern Avenue for the first time. I guess I was probably 9 or something like that–you know, a real taco where the lady made the tortilla. It just blew my mind, and from that point forward tacos were one of my number one things.

Arepas are a poverty food for me because I knew when I ate arepas for breakfast, there was gonna be no more food for the rest of the day until the evening time. So for me, arepas hold a place in me that probably nothing else does.

Empanadas may be a close second, ’cause I remember being a kid, playing in my uncle Segundo’s house [in Venezuela], and hearing the dude coming down the street yelling that he’s got arepas and tequeños, it reminded me of the arabbers, so it was an instant connection for me, you know, back home to Baltimore, so it was like every morning I woke up with this dude coming down the street.

BFB: So it sounds like part of the goal for this was to explicitly make cheap stuff?

GH: Well yes, cheap things, absolutely, because, for instance, our chicken sandwich, people come in here all the time, ‘I’d pay 10 bucks for that.’ I was like not me, there was a time when I couldn’t afford to eat that for 10 bucks. Five bucks? That’s right in my wheelhouse.

Five dollars is also, it’s a psychological price point. People are more willing to try things–new things, even if they don’t think that they’re gonna like it, because five bucks isn’t a whole lot of money. See for us, it would be hard for me to take something like that and turn it into some bougie status something or other. I’ve never gone to Mexico and had a f—-ing confit duck taco with raspberry whatever.

BFB: In addition to affordability, you also source all your ingredients locally, from within 25 miles of the city. How does that work?

GH: So everything that we bring in here, we know the origin of. We know either the baker, we know where it was produced, we know the farmer, we know the person who raised the cattle–cattle, it’s not Texas but you know what I’m saying–and for us, that is, it’s absolutely important to have complete integrity around what we do.

BFB: Is there a particular twist on soul food that you guys are inspired by?

MM: Basically I was inspired by my grandma. Her potato salad and fried chicken I could eat every day. Actually, my potato salad is her recipe. Everybody seems to think they can do soul food.

You know, we’re called Three Goats, I do not consider myself the greatest of all time by far. I just know my palate, and I’ve got a good flavor profile. I feel as though if I like it, anybody would like it. And I know that’s everybody’s attitude, especially if you’re a chef. But we go through trial and error.

We have our jerk chicken, and people love our jerk chicken, but we actually sat in here on our day off yesterday, trying to make it better. So that’s what we do, we take our product: What can we do to enhance it, to make it better? Everybody has mac and cheese, we’ll smoke it. We’ll smoke it with mesquite, we’ll smoke it with pecan chips, all kinda chips just to find that one flavor. We waste a lot of money but once we do it, we got it! (they high five).

We can’t be beat. So you know, through trial and error we put our own little touch on everything.

This interview has been edited and condensed.