Oscar Diaz in front of Little Bull. Credit: Photo by Lauren Vied Allen

The best way to get a sense of the cuisine at Little Bull is by getting to know the soon-opening Durham restaurant’s owner, Oscar Diaz, who most concisely describes his amorphous menu as “a melting pot of the flavors in my lexicon.” 

“I think sometimes everyone’s so focused on ‘going back to authenticity’ that there’s almost no room for this growth, you know—for this organic thing that’s happening, to happen,” says Diaz, who will open Little Bull in two months in the Mangum Street  space formerly occupied by Jetplane Coffee.

“Everyone’s like, ‘no, no, we want that authentic, made-by-your-grandma Mexican food.’ I’m like, I’m not my grandma.”

Born and raised in Chicago’s Logan Square to Mexican immigrant parents, Diaz was introduced to a dozen of the city’s culinary subcultures at a young age. It wasn’t until he was a teenager at military school in Indiana, though, that he “realized food was a big deal,” largely because the local fare was so drab he had to carry around a bottle of hot sauce from home. 

Oscar Diaz. Photo by Lauren Vied Allen. Credit: Photo by Lauren Vied Allen

After college, Diaz enrolled in culinary school and got a job at the now-closed Alizé—a Michelin-starred French restaurant in Las Vegas that he says soon gave him “the confidence to drop out of culinary school because now I was learning and being paid to learn, versus, you know, me paying.”

He went on to work at another acclaimed, now-closed institution, Walt Disney Concert Hall, but ultimately felt pulled away by a need for self exploration and expression.

“You got all these people doing French food, you got people doing molecular gastronomy,” Diaz says of the Michelin arena. “I just had these moments where I would sit up and be like, what is my identity?”

He landed in Raleigh, joining forces with the Ibarra family to open Jose and Sons and later launching Cortez Seafood + Cocktail, two restaurants that Diaz describes as being “a little bit not typical” and that illustrate “how food has become an identity for me.” While there, he also scored two James Beard Award semifinalist nods for Best Chef Southeast.

At Little Bull, Diaz says he’ll continue cooking through the spectrum of the cuisines he’s encountered throughout his life, though with even less of a genre or structure than his previous two restaurants. The menu, in a simple sense, will aim to conjure nostalgia from customers while also leaving space for new influences.

“This is part of the landscape of American food,” Diaz says. “And, you know, it may lean towards some form of ethnic stuff, but that is what I believe the food is. You just start learning flavor,” Diaz says. “There’s no passports with this. You don’t need a visa or anything—like, it’s all been here.”

The restaurant’s design is a bit more concrete: expect a moody “study vibe” with emerald green banker’s lamps, gold trimming, hip-hop inspired decor, and an outdoor patio.”

Diaz will share ownership of the restaurant with the Mezcalito Group Inc., which has a new outpost in Durham alongside other locations in Goldsboro, Clayton, Beaufort, and Henderson.

“There’s gonna be a live fire and cooking with wood,” Diaz says. “Think big plates, think muted colors—think homey.”

Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to lgeller@indyweek.comComment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com

Support independent local journalism

Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.