Carne Pleasures

El Mariachi
2750 Nicollet Ave., Mpls.; (612) 871-5200
Hours: 10:00 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 10:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Lately I've taken to crafting Majorcan emeralds into those three-pronged Czech-style nose-warmers that are all the rage in Paris. I was modestly modeling my creations at one of those terribly fashionable parties with the electric eels and the mud dinette sets and all, when, suddenly, the very chicest people I know turned to me, threw down their designer earplugs, and cried as one: My God, woman, can't you recommend a decent Mexican restaurant?

So I launched into a merry tale of El Mariachi, the sort of lively wingding where festive blankets festoon the walls, tots waddle in the aisles, televisions blare Spanish-language talk shows, cervezas decorate the tabletops, and the waitresses flit through the carnival seemingly oblivious to the massive trays they carry--trays as heavy as a smallish restaurant critic in a Majorcan nose-warmer.

Teddy Maki

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El Mariachi

2750 Nicollet Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

Primary among Mariachi's charms are the meats. The greasy and delectable carne asada ($11.95) is a ten-inch stretch of steak marinated in lime juice, basted with fat, and grilled to a crispy char that's salty, smoky, limey, and ravishingly good--the best of bacon and steak, united in one heavenly slab of beast. Close runners-up are the puerco en salsa verde (chunks of pork cooked in a bright tomatillo sauce with potatoes to make a sassy little stew, $7.50) and the barbacoa de res ($7.50), a piece of brisket grilled until it falls apart at the touch of your fork and served with pickled jalapeños and onions. It's like a gringo pot roast gone wry--tender, feisty, and caustic.

These dishes, like nearly everything else at El Mariachi, are served on big platters ringed round with goodies: Creamy beans dusted with tangy grated cheese; a yellow rice that is slightly sweet in the way Thanksgiving stuffing is sweet; lettuce, tomatoes, a dollop of sour cream, a tablespoon of fresh guacamole. And, of course, each of Mariachi's laminate tables usually holds a steaming container of corn tortillas.

As you might guess, there ends up being very little room on those tables. Each diner is greeted with a basket of chips and two ramekins of salsa, a smoked chile-and-tomato version with a hint of fire and a zingy tomatillo-cilantro-onion mixture. Sometimes the kitchen also doles out complimentary cups of vegetable soup, a lime-touched broth with carrots, tomatillos, and potatoes. Set down some platters, some tortillas, an extra taco or two for pure gluttonous pleasure, and you have not just a crowded table, but a gorging banquet at less than $8 per person.

If I were gripped by a particularly nasty strain of the glass-half-empty virus, I might say that that was all for the better, because in sampling widely from the appetizer menu of quesadillas, gorditas, sopes, tostadas, and such, I couldn't find a selection tasty enough or different enough from the rest of the offerings to justify adding a starter to the meal.

But does that sound like something I would say? No, it doesn't. Instead, I'd offer that there are two decent appetizers: The tamales ($1.75), a dense, mellow version of the steamed cornmeal loaves formed around a smoky pork center, and the taquitos de papa ($4.85), corn tortillas rolled around a mild potato filling that come with all the trimmings of an entrée and would make a fine, if smallish, vegetarian meal.

Vegetarians should take note of that, because with the exception of the taquito and three fairly uninspired meat-free entrées, Mariachi's menu leaves them to cry into their beers. (At least they're good beers: For a smallish, inexpensive spot, El Mariachi offers a stunning eight imports--Negra Modelo, Pacifica, Dos Equis, Corona, and more--each priced at $3, plus a few domestics at $2.50.)

While the vegetarians fritter away their afternoons whimpering, carnivores can gnaw on more, more, more! hot meat. Like the nine fillings for the excellent tacos ($2 each, $7.50 for three with the de rigueur accompaniments). Tacos here have soft flour tortillas on the bottom, plenty of fresh chopped onions and cilantro on top, and a middle of your choosing: pork al pastor (marinated and grilled), carnitas (cooked, shredded pork cooked in pork fat, like a confit), chorizo (a spicy, vibrant orange version of the casing-free sausage meat), cecina (brined, thin-sliced steak, my least favorite), lengua (soft beef tongue, $2.25 each), barbacoa (that pot roast-style grilled beef), carne asada (a minced version of that steak I so recommend), chicharrón en salsa (stewed pork rinds), and a very plain pollo (chicken).

If you're going to count all the variations on those meats--cecina in a taco, cecina in a burrito, cecina on a tostada, cecina in a torta, cecina going it alone with nothing but rice and beans to cushion it from cruel fate--El Mariachi easily offers 100 different dishes. Among them, not surprisingly, I found some duds: The sauce in the chicken mole ($7.50) is acrid and bitter. The burritos, ($4.75 on their own, or $6.45 on a plate with rice, beans, etc.) are way too bland and rice-filled for my taste.

Desserts could use some work, too: The pastel de tres leches ($2), a cake I normally love, is way too sugary; flan ($2) is fine, but not special. Both desserts are made off-site and served ice-cold from the beer refrigerator. A far better option to satisfy a sweet tooth is to order a milk-shake-like licuado, available in a variety of flavors. I particularly like to contemplate the world over the creamy top of a banana licuado ($2.50). Until my nose-warmer falls off and lands at the bottom of the glass and I'm reduced once again to sucking banana pulp from the emeralds.

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