Yats Restaurants, Joe Vuskovich

In a city of people who keep their personalities in check, Joe Vuskovich is a big guy, larger than life. He comes by his stature honestly, and I don’t mean just his height, his compelling personality or his wildly popular restaurant, Yats. No, everybody knows Vuskovich because Vuskovich is good to everybody.

When we called up this year’s CVA winners, the one person almost everyone knew was Vuskovich. ICAN even has a dog named Yats.

A former NUVO restaurant critic says an encounter with Vuskovich “is like a brush with a small tornado.”

As business partner and friend John Byrne puts it: “Yats, like Joe, doesn’t put on airs. It feeds the masses (350, sometimes 450, people a day and with not one off-street parking spot!). A chicken in every pot? How about a plate-full of soul-healing goodness that will stick to your ribs for hours and might just help restore your faith in mankind. And all for $5.50 a plate.”

Vuskovich, who hails from New Orleans, first got into the restaurant business when he was 19 when he and his brother opened a four-table oyster bar and named it Visko’s, after their grandfather. Visko’s soon grew to a 700-seat restaurant. Vuskovich recalls, “We were one of the biggest restaurants in the city — one of the biggest restaurants in the country, you might say.” By the time he was 30, he says, “I screwed up by wanting to retire and playing polo — and just burned out.” His next stop was Lexington, Ky., where he open Jozo’s, Lexington’s first Cajun joint. He was the cook at Jozo’s, relying on recipes gleaned from his mother and her friends. There, he met his wife-to-be, Regina, with whom he collaborated on a quick-freeze technique that Vuskovich hoped he could use to sell his dishes across the country. The two were on their way to Chicago in hopes of finding a distribution center when, by chance, they stopped in Indianapolis. They soon realized that Indy would make a better base for them, and soon Yats appeared at the corner of 54th and College, a place Vuskovich calls, “The best corner in the world.”

Current NUVO food critic Terry Kirts says, “Thank your lucky stars for Yats. Bart Peterson should give them a plaque or something.” Instead, Vuskovich gets a CVA. Byrne knows how Vuskovich would respond to this award in his Nawlins patois: “What, what, WHAT?!? Whaddyatawkinbout? I’m no bettuh than any-baady else …!”

For more on Yats: www.yatscajuncreole.com. Note their new location at 8352 E. 96th St.

— Jim Poyser