Heat Treatments Par Excellence

El Cafe

El Burrito Mercado

175 Concord St., St. Paul; 227-2192

I live in a world without air-conditioning for a lot of reasons: because I'm sort of morally against it (because it's energy-inefficient and environment-alienating), because I'm sort of cheap, and because I'm easily distracted by delusions I construct for myself. For instance, one summer I decided that if I spent my days drinking coffee in bars I would metamorphosize into an astonishingly productive writer with an enigmatic lifestyle that would titillate the world press. Instead, I learned what alcoholics do with their days, and how very bad they are at finishing their stories. Another summer I thought I would just spend all my time in the country--and it wasn't until mid-August that I realized that I had missed every neighborhood summer festival I love, that I was transporting my vulnerable flesh right into the mosquitoes' home-field advantage, and that the marriage of tents and humidity is truly grotesque. This year I've decided that if I can't beat it I can become it--I'm filling myself with chiles, and it seems to be the best plan yet.

First I thought I'd stop reading Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen, which I do compulsively, and start cooking from it. This decision led me to El Burrito Mercado, where I found the fresh masa to make tamales ($3.95 for five heavy pounds of the ground-corn mixture), corn husks to wrap them in, whole achiote seeds, all the chiles I need (dried ancho, chipotle, guajillo, and pasilla; fresh jalapeño, habanero, poblano, and serrano), chorizo sausage, mortars and pestles for authentic grinding, big earthenware bean pots, and all sorts of things to keep me busy--and even some things to annoy my friends with, like big bags of jalapeño-flavored lollipops ($3.99).

Weakened from all my shopping, I decided to fortify myself with a burrito ($4.25) and a big glass of fresh-made papaya drink (85 cents) from the humble cafeteria-style counter of El Cafe, off to one side of El Mercado. At El Cafe you can choose to have your burrito or taco or what-have-you filled with your choice of about a dozen guisados (stew-like dishes), instead of the ordinary Tex-Mex options of chicken, beef, or other beast, and I just happened to pick a beef in colorado sauce, which is a rich red mole, and it was a revelation. Smoky, spicy, silky, deep--not the slightly bitter, slightly sweet stuff you usually get in inexpensive restaurants. I was so delighted I came back the next day and tried the two-taco platter ($5.25), which I had with a very hot, very tender chicken-and-chili mash called pollo a la diabla, and a pork guisado in a green tomatillo-based sauce which was tart, almost citrusy. On my third visit I tried the tremendously popular carnitas--golden, deep-fried pork hacked into lengthy pieces, which tastes something like pot roast. I also discovered El Cafe's wonderful gorditas--plump tortillas that are sweet, tender, plain, and handmade daily. Tamales, which are a real pain to make (and I should know because I have a five-pound bag of masa in my refrigerator and an absolute lack of commitment to the project), are also very good here: They're tender, fluffy, and nicely filled with a slightly spicy, slightly sweet pork, chili, and tomato guisado. (Tamales are $5.50 for three with rice and beans.) I soon found that there was very little I didn't like at this down-to-earth eatery, from the simple salsas offered at the counter--both a tomatillo and a simple tomato salsa are there daily--to the unslimy cactus dishes and torta sandwiches. Sometimes you can even see a new guisado started by the folks behind the counter--bunches of bright veggies sizzle away in big squat pots.

The recipes are all reputed to be the handiwork of Maria Silva, who ran a grocery store across the street for 20 years before she and her husband Tomas moved into their current big, open space four years ago. In addition to the grocery and cafe, El Burrito Mercado has a deli counter featuring many of their guisados to go, ready-made burritos (starting at $1.99 each), and homemade salsas (generally around $3 a pound). There's also a gift area with dolls, Christmas ornaments, and piñatas, and a bakery featuring cookies and pastries. (I like the pumpkin empanadas (69 cents) best; they've got a rich cinnamon-and-spice-laced filling, and have a strength and character that the sweeter pastries lack.) The plain coffee at the cafe is weak, but the cappuccinos made to order are quite good.

In fact, a cappuccino and a pumpkin empanada is a fine way to enliven an afternoon spent dodging rays from the earth's great life-giving star. I know this, my friends, because El Cafe figures into my strategy on how to beat the heat this summer. It opens for egg-chorizo scrambles and just-baked gorditas at 9 a.m., just as the sun starts to flex its muscle, and doesn't close again until 7 p.m. (6 p.m. on Sundays), when the sun has moved on to torment Hawaiians. While I may be getting rapidly out of bathing-suit shape from the tasty, desperately unhealthy carnitas, I've found a hideaway where there's a rainbow of chiles, an ever-changing menu, a bounty of fruity drinks, and the satisfying, gratifying, charming chill of air-conditioning.

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