Mercado Forces

The third jewel at Mercado Central is Otra Cocina, another small counter where everything I tried was truly memorable--including, shockingly, the bean tostadas. I've never in all my days encountered a bean tostada worth eating, have never even understood the attraction to lettuce, cheese, and beans on a fried tortilla disk--until now. Owner Maria Capouch starts with a rich layer of black beans, adds a limey tomatillo salsa and some romaine lettuce, throws on some fresh, tangy cheese and a few slices of avocado--and voilà, it's a bright, delicious union of flavors and textures. (Three bean tostadas cost $3.50.)

While Otra Cocina isn't a vegetarian restaurant, it's the only Mexican place in town I can sincerely recommend to lacto-vegetarians, so all y'all take note. Capouch's tortilla soup ($3.50) is rich, sharp, loaded with strips of fried tortilla, cheese, and sour cream, and topped with a few slices of fresh avocado. And she makes the best Mexican dessert I've had in the Twin Cities, a two-layer contraption made with chocolate cake on the bottom and a sweet and buttery flan on top, all served with a dollop of tangy, delicious goat's-milk caramel--if you can figure out how to get this one in to your loved ones' stockings, well, bully for you.

Careful readers will notice that I've been flinging my hyperbole pretty freely here, best this, best that, best, best, best. But while some might hold that I've lost my critical faculties, I'd like to offer that no, I don't think so. Your loved ones can run around calling this the year of Lewinsky, of Jesse, of Littleton, or whatever they want, but to me 1999 will forever be the year when Minneapolis Mexican food came out of the Dark Ages. No more is this a city known only for chimichangas under a hogpile of sour cream; no more do Minneapolitans have to hang their heads in shame while St. Paul laughs and points. No, we can now have excellent Mexican food while multitasking--eating, sampling the salsa tunes that spill from the record stores, and eyeballing leather gifts. The stakes are officially raised, and it's about time.

 

TABLEHOPPING

MILLENNIUMSERVATIONS: What are you doing for New Year's? If you have no idea, fear not: Tablehopping has been working overtime on occasion of the City Pages Winter Issue, and it turns out that quite a few of our favorite restaurants still have tables available. At press time gorgeous, glamorous Goodfellow's had filled up two planned seatings in the main room but still had about 20 seats left for the $150-per-person New Year's Eve Wine Dinner. That dinner happens upstairs on the Goodfellow's balcony, starts with a 6:30 p.m. reception, and moves on through a four-course meal complete with an impressive run of wines.

But don't figure you can simply make reservations to hedge your bets until something better comes along: Like nearly every restaurant I called about New Year's Eve, Goodfellow's is only taking reservations with a credit card, and no-shows will be charged. As Auriga co-owner Scott Davis puts it, "We learned our lesson the hard way. The first New Year's we were open, we thought we were completely booked, but then only a few people showed up. Never again."

Auriga won't be doing a prix-fixe special, but will offer what Davis calls "an upgraded menu" with pricier options than the restaurant commonly offers (think $21 to $31) including lamb chops, jumbo sea scallops, and arctic char, plus a variety of vegetarian dishes. "What we're hearing from our Kenwood clientele is that they just want to stay at home, not travel. So we're serving our special New Year's menu both Thursday [December 30] and Friday. We're going to seat until 10:00 p.m. or so, and the bar will be open until 1:00 a.m. People can bring in their special champagne or wine and not worry about driving."

Driving isn't scaring off fans of Stillwater's La Belle Vie: Co-owner Josh Thoma glanced through his reservation book and noted that half of his millennium guests are from the 612 area code. "I don't know if they're hiring limousines, or what--we do have quite a few reservations for large parties, tables of 10 or 14, but we still have 12 open tables at the first seating, and a few after 9:30 for the second." La Belle Vie's first offering of the night, a six-course tasting menu, costs $85 and seats between 5:00 and 6:30 p.m.; the second, featuring eight courses, is $135, includes a champagne toast, and seats between 7:00 and 10:30 p.m.

Diners will be able to purchase bubbly off La Belle Vie's delicious champagne list, including vintage 1990 Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame for $120, and Billecarte nonvintage brut reserve, for $50. It will be an evening of la belle vie indeed, says Thoma: "[We] came up with the menu by sitting down and listing all of our favorite ingredients--caviar, foie gras, squab, all those things you don't see every day, but want to. It's the menu to beat all menus."

Interestingly, of all the restaurateurs I spoke to, only the folks at the Local had plans for coping should millennium night turn into the disaster of all disasters: "Our dining room will be entirely lit by candlelight, in honor of the turn of the century," says manager Jacquie Berglund. "That way, if all the electricity goes, we're fine." The Local plans to have a jazz quartet and dance floor in the dining room; the first seating is at 5:30 p.m. and features five courses at $75 per person. The second is available after 9:00 p.m., includes eight courses, and costs $125. Both meals are a comparative bargain when you consider that a full suite of wine pairings is included in the cost.

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