Salsa With the Stiletto Set

Conga Latin Bistro
501 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis;
(612) 331-3360

Hours: 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; appetizers available daily till 11:00 p.m.; bar open daily till 1:00 a.m.

I say there are three ages for the postpuberty Minnesota woman, and these ages can be neatly organized by the shoes they select for a night when it's 20 below, a night when they are all but guaranteed to have to traverse sheets of black ice, lagoons of refrozen, craggy slush, and sloping, salt-pocked curb hurdles. The first age of women are those willing to wear open-toed, whisper-soled stiletto heels, pretty little confections that touch the ground as lightly as the sandals of Mercury, so agilely do their toes skim over the bitter landscape. Second is the age of women willing to wear heels, yes, on even such a night, but the heels must be of the sturdy sort in which one would be able to hike seven miles to the nearest gas station, should a particularly large icicle happen to impale the car. The final age of woman is, of course, the age of safety and comfort, when it is decided that rubberized sheepskin mukluks may not really clash with brocade evening gowns after all.

Conga is a restaurant for the first age of woman. I was amazed, dazzled, and astonished to watch one evening as tiny, bare rhinestone-wrapped foot after polished, bare leather-thonged foot skipped through the door, as incongruous out of the deadly cold as dryads emerging from one of those explosions of snow that launch off the tops of trucks in the middle of the highway.

Raoul Benavides

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Conga Latin Bistro

501 E. Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55414

Category: Restaurant > Latin American

Region: University

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Why do they come? They come for the dancing. They come for the music. Conga is a Latin-music disco and bar, as well as a restaurant, and what makes it distinct from any other restaurant in town is a very, very large dance floor dappled by roving lights and ringed by a handful of video monitors that ceaselessly broadcast Spanish-language music videos. If you have a desire to salsa, merengue, or cumbia (a variation of salsa, popular in Mexico and Colombia), this is where you will come. Conga is the most comprehensive Latin dance club in town, and soon it will be even more so: Salsa dance lessons will be given on Thursday nights, karaoke will begin on Wednesday nights, and singers can croon in their choice of English or Spanish. Sometime before summer there should even be small flamenco bands playing, and you'll be able to dine while watching a show, then leap from your chair and salsa till the wee hours.

Manager Jovanni Thunstrom, son of owner Gladys Thunstrom, says when things really get rolling there will be different live entertainment nearly every night. "One night we might have a group from Brazil, another night Ecuador or Venezuela," he says. "We're not just a single type of thing. The Colombian community can come here and feel at home with the music and food, then there will be Puerto Rican music, and then rock en español."

One hopes the food will soon be as attractive as the crowd. Regrettably, on a series of recent visits, the food here was uneven. The very best things were the buttery little garlic toasts that come with dinner and the empanadas ($7.95), an appetizer plate of six large homemade pastries stuffed with two each of subtly seasoned beef, sweet chicken, or hot melted cheese. The pastry was flaky and appealing in every way; the little ramekin of salsa that came with them was fresh and potent. Most empanadas I've had are made with brittle, chemical-scented, factory-made dough, but these were tender and truly adorable. Among the steaks ($16.95 to $19.95), which are charcoal-grilled, I particularly liked the "Churasco Argentino" ($16.95), a cross-hatched beef tenderloin marinated in chimichurri, an olive-oil-based herb sauce that makes the meat savory and silken, a texture that contrasts beautifully with the crisp crust. Two encounters with the garlic soup ($5.95) revealed it to be piquant, deeply flavored, and unforgettable once. In the broth lie pretty cubes of homemade croutons, and on this trip each bite was as big and fine as a single note played on the cello. Another time the soup arrived so salty it was inedible.

This was more normal for the restaurant than not. Out of my three meals here, begun after the new place had been open for a month, I judged about two-thirds of whatever was on the table to be really very bad. Detailing the failures seems cruel--I mean, no one has been dancing very prettily at more successful meals I've had around town lately--so I'll try to be brief. An appetizer of crab, chicken, and fish croquettes ($8.95) was bland, mealy, and awful. Not even the waitress could tell the crab from the fish, or vice versa. The house salad ($4.50) is chopped leaf lettuce scattered with cheese and coated with watery vinaigrette. Order the "Conga salad" ($5.95) and you get something unforgettably peculiar: It's the house salad surrounded with large lukewarm, peeled, cooked, unseasoned chunks of yuca, and root vegetables boniato and malanga. Imagine a green salad surrounded by tepid golf-ball-size chunks of rutabaga and parsnip, and you'll grasp the general effect.

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