Ave Maria

Maria's Café
1113 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis;
(612) 870-9842
Hours: Monday-Saturday 7:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.; Sunday 8:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.

 

Maria Hoyos battles clichés wherever she goes. She hails from Medellín, Colombia, and proudly says so on the menu at her sunny breakfast hotspot, Maria's Café. But while she'd rather you think of Medellín as she does, as the "City of Flowers," most days it seems like everyone only wants to talk about one of Medellín's less floral exports: cocaine. "Always people who come in here think Colombia is just drugs," she says, exasperated. "But we have better things than that."

Tony Nelson

Location Info

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Maria's Cafe

1113 E. Franklin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55404

Category: Restaurant > Breakfast

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

Worse, when Hoyos returns to Colombia to visit, it seems like Colombians only want to talk about another kind of snow: Minnesota's blizzard and road-salt kind, which they assume is piled up to the sky year round. "No one believes me when I say it, but Minneapolis looks very much like my hometown, especially in the fall and the spring. The trees, the gardens, the modern architecture in the downtowns, the temperature, everything. Of course, in my hometown it is like spring all the time, but I think the seasons are beautiful." So take that, all you snow-obsessives on your various continents.

Luckily, Hoyos doesn't go into battle unarmed; she has several formidable weapons. First among them are her ambrosial corn pancakes. What can be said about these beauties that hasn't been said before? When Hoyos was manager at the late, lamented Rick's Ol'Time Café, lines snaked into the parking lot every weekend as people waited to get an order of thick, fluffy, bubbly golden cakes. When she moved to 56th and Lyndale to open Maria's Breakfast Club, she took her accolades with her, and fans massed for those same plate-sized brown beauties. There was a collective shock to the system when Maria closed her restaurant and spent two and a half years working in country-club kitchens, but then she opened her new place last January.

The pancakes are back, and there aren't enough superlatives for them. Send to the kitchen for the corn pancakes ($2.75 for one plate-sized cake, $5.25 for two) and let the bliss begin: sweet and crunchy with corn, comforting and chewy, surprisingly light, overall. They're enormous, they're rich, but they're plain and sustaining--what more is there? Well, there's also the special plantain pancake ($2.75 for one), wherein ripe, sweet plantains fill out plump pancake midsections. A mango pancake is nearly dessertlike, bursting with large sections of mango and dressed with a pretty grid of drizzled mango sauce. (To tell you the truth, though, I had to force myself to order the mango pancakes. It's deeply counterintuitive to go to Maria's Café and not order the corn pancakes, like going to Rome for the Chinese food.)

Venturing deeper into the menu yielded a handful of treasures: The kitchen does a marvelous job with sandwiches. I'll never forget the provocatively sour filling in the marinated eggplant sandwich ($5.50); lemon-soaked slices of eggplant grilled between thick slices of wheat bread, along with sprouts, chopped garlic, and Swiss cheese. It was crunchy, chewy, sour, creamy--basically everything that's attractive about a Reuben without the fattiness, or the meat. A BLT ($5.25) was excellent, done with lots of bacon, ripe tomatoes undamaged by refrigerator storage, and good leaf lettuce. All the sandwiches come with your choice of pale slices of griddled potato (called American fries), corn chips, or apple chips, which are crisp, dried slices of apple dusted with cinnamon and sugar. I didn't try the grilled cheese ($4.85), but the triple-decker I once saw on my way out the door looked glorious.

Dairy-eating vegetarians should note that the restaurant also serves two more meat-free sandwiches, an egg sandwich with Swiss cheese and vegetables ($5.25) and an avocado sandwich with cream cheese and onion. Burgers (from $4.85 for a third of a pound, with 80 cents for add-ons like cheese) were also very good; soft, not over-handled, and served on really good seeded buns.

While Maria's has mastered American diner classics, don't come here for Mexican-American restaurant standbys. I thought the restaurant's special quesadilla ($6.95), made with mozzarella and Cheddar cheese, as well as chopped green bell peppers, onion, tomatoes, and beef or chicken, was too bland, arriving as pale as bagged tortillas. Worse, I didn't find anything to like about the salsa that came with them--it tasted cooked and bland, no better than a jar of Pace. I also tried the huevos pericos burrito ($5.95) which had nothing really to recommend it; the eggs, cooked with sautéed onions, tomatoes, and scallions, were surprisingly bland, and the other ingredients were bland too, leaving an overall impression of a warm porridge burrito. Chili was also off-putting. The bowl I had ($2.95 for a cup, $4.25 a bowl) tasted very nearly unseasoned; it was more like beef, tomato, and kidney bean soup.

Desserts were better. Colombian flan ($3.50) was particularly memorable; served in a night-dark, mouth-puckeringly bitter caramel, it brought a new, starker dimension to the sometimes pallid dessert. I liked it for its contrast of bitter and creamy. Hoyos says that her flan is purposely made darker than the golden Mexican flan most diners are used to, and that it's best enjoyed with a cup of--what else?--Colombian coffee ($1.50). Those familiar with the old parking-lot wait that Hoyos's pancakes originally inspired will be delighted to know that this was flan I didn't have to stand in line for. For good or for ill, as of this writing Maria's Café is wrestling with another cliché, namely Street Construction Drives Away Customers. East Franklin around Maria's (which is at 11th Avenue) was being entirely repaved during my visits. Hoyos says the obstacles have cut her business by more than half. Take heart, though--the construction should end sometime in the next few weeks, and the street is transformed. You won't believe it.

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