Pollo Magnifico

Restaurante Puerto Escondido
320 E. Lake St., Minneapolis; (612) 822-4395
Hours: daily 9:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.
No credit cards.

 

There are about half a dozen dishes I consider lifetime hall of famers on the Twin Cities dining scene: The grilled salt mackerel at the Sole Cafe; the raised, glazed doughnuts at Mel-O-Glaze; the bone-in ribeye at Manny's; the fried chicken at Lucille's Kitchen; the pizza at Punch. Rarely do I find a dish that vaults into that league instantaneously, but today I'm happy to announce I have.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to introduce to you the newest triumph of the Mexican kitchen, the greatest thing to happen to the corner of East Lake Street and Clinton Avenue since dinosaurs walked the earth, the best thing to hit the inside of a taco in the year 2000. Children of all ages, it gives me tremendous pleasure to present to you--quiet in the house, please!--let's all give a warm welcome to the roast chicken at Puerto Escondido!

I know, roast chicken doesn't sound that earth-shaking. So, please, call it pollo asado, call it pollo al carbon, but call it to your table posthaste, and you'll be rewarded with succulent, moist pieces of chicken sealed to its bones by crusts of crisp, well-spiced skin as delectable as sheets of the finest bacon. This chicken is available in three sizes: a quarter, half, and whole, for, respectively, $5.50, $8.99, and $13.75. It arrives at the table cut into serving pieces on a platter along with a plate of rice and beans and a container of steaming tortillas.

That's it. Simple perfection. It's one of those things so elementary, so elemental, and so common in other parts of the world--the last time I had chicken this good it was at a street market in Paris--that it triggers something deep in the brain: How has it been we've been living without a great roast-chicken place all these years?

This wonderchicken couldn't be in a less likely place: Remember the Hickory Hut on East Lake? That's where this is, and the Hickory Huttishness of it all has barely been obscured: From the distinctive yellow exterior to the misleading hours still stenciled on the door, to the chuck wagon sign hanging in the middle of the room, your eyes tell you Hickory Hut. Your ears tell you otherwise. There's always Spanish-language TV blaring from the corners of the room, Mexican soaps in the afternoon, game shows in the early evening, variety shows full of singing and dancing later on. No one speaks English, but you don't need to speak Spanish to get the best thing on the menu: That chicken.

Get a glass ($1.50) or a pitcher (a jarra, $4.25) of horchata, a cooling rice-milk beverage dressed up with ground cinnamon, and you can jazz up your tacos with scads of the potent house-made salsa with no fear. Penny pinchers, please note: With the family-style chicken and beverages by the pitcher, you can feast gluttonously here for well less than $10 a head.

Looking to spend more? By all means do. I ventured further afield on the menu repeatedly, and I found a lot of very good things. The simple onion-and-cilantro guacamole ($2.50) is always just-made. The seafood cocktails ($9.99-$10.50) are served in enormous parfait glasses and taste fresh, even if the sweet tomato sauce that dresses them isn't terrifically subtle (I say the nicely resilient octopus is the best of the bunch). And the generous portions of enchiladas presented with avocado, tomato, and onion ($7.50), are notable for never being oversauced or overbaked, and topped with pretty spin-art squirts of sour cream.

I can't recommend the whole menu though. Carne asada ($8.50) was a thin slice of briny meat, nowhere near as good as the carne asada at El Mariachi. Octopus pan-fried in butter and garlic ($11) was greasy and rubbery. And I still can't figure out what I thought about the seafood paella ($13), smoky, saucy bright-orange rice filled with teensy shrimp, lots of good bacon, tons of octopus, and a couple of green-lip mussels. It was salty, stewy, and rapidly devoured by my table, but in truth it wasn't real paella, and its main virtues seem to be the lazy ones of salt and fat.

Just when I was about to give up on the seafood on the menu, and there's a lot of it--crab, halibut, a plate of (untried) fresh oysters--I found another gem: Whole red snapper, or huachinango. The chef here just works wonders with whole critters. The fish is best ordered a la veracruzana ($15.50), deeply scored and pan-fried, crisp on one side and dressed with an exquisitely subtle smoky chile sauce that, unless I miss my guess, was made with a nicely restrained base of ancho chiles. My table reduced this delicious creature to a cartoonish skeleton while the bones were still hot.

Then we settled up and headed out into the world, stuffed and happy, well satisfied to find our universe one flawless dish wider.

TABLEHOPPING:

SAN FRANCISCO NOTEBOOK: How does Twin Cities Vietnamese food stack up to the rest of the nation's? This is a question that's been of more and more interest to me lately, and on recent visits to New York I did a little snooping and eating, and I didn't find anything that even touched local treasures, like Minneapolis's Quang (2719 Nicollet Ave. S.; 612-870-4739), the Phuong Café (2424 Nicollet Ave. S.; 612-871-7116), or even promising newcomer Lakai (2550 Nicollet Ave. S.; 612-870-3727). What's New York, really, but a lot of overpriced real estate? The real Vietnamese restaurants are all in California--or so I've always heard.

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