The Chile Factor

El Burrito Restaurants
Skyway level, TCF Building, 121 S. Eighth St., Minneapolis; (612) 339-0711
Ground-floor level, North Star Building, 618 Second Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 339-8620
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m. Monday-Friday

What kind of restaurant is open for three or four hours a day? A skyway restaurant.

Craig Lassig

Location Info


El Burrito

121 S. 8th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55402-2841

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

"It's amazing to see," says Jeff Alexander. "There are these eating hours and boom! It's like a bell goes off, and thousands and thousands of people leave their offices, flood down into the skyways, and then they'll either go eat, or buy stamps. There's this little window of time. Everybody's got 30 minutes and then boom! They're gone. Ghost town. They used to have 55 minutes, but now they have 30. The face of productivity increases."

Alexander should know; he has been watching the faces of productivity for 17 years now, running skyway-abutting food spots with his wife Debba Alexander. Today they own the two El Burritos as well as Alexander's restaurant. Turning those faces of productivity your way is no easy feat, but the Alexanders have figured out a strategy: Perfume the air with chiles.

The first time I noticed the place, I had armfuls of bagels weighing me down, but even all that dough couldn't distract me from the amazing fragrance. I was drawn to it like a toddler spying unguarded stemware. Now I've been to the places four times and can report that their burritos stand squarely in the first rank of Twin Cities burritos, alongside such hall-of-famers as Bar Abilene, El Burrito Mercado, and Tejas.

I particularly liked an El Burrito burrito filled with beef diablo, a rich, spicy, smoky stew full of the taste of just-roasted dry chiles, and I also grew fond of the chicken mole, a sweet, nutty, intensely fragrant combination of chicken breast, ground toasted seeds, and chiles. All the house-made salsas are fresh and good (though the tomato salsa has that fresh salsa half-life--it's twice as good at 10:30 as it is at 2:00). That said, I thought the tomato salsa was appealingly forthright, just fresh chopped tomatoes brightened with cilantro, lime, and onions. And the tomatillo salsa has a form-perfect sour bite. The beans are a cut above standard issue: Black beans are stewed with rice to give them an earthy breadth; pinto beans aren't mushed and fried, but cooked twice (to eliminate fat) and combined with a touch of feta, to give them depth. I thought the nonfried refrieds and the beef diablo were an irresistible combination to put in a burrito, the sweet platform of the beans providing a secure base for the roundhouse punch of the chiles. That'll knock you out of a morning's office stupor.

Burritos start at $4 for rice and beans and house-made pico de gallo; $4.95 gets you that plus a vegetable or meat filling and cheese. For $5.95 you can get the "grande" with your choice of all sorts of add-ins, like shredded lettuce, pickled jalapeño slices, sour cream, and more of the usual suspects. All the burritos come in long, thin paper bags, their sleeves topped off with corn chips. As usual, regulars knew their way around the joint better than I and seemed to have developed deep intuition for what went best with what, pinto beans with pork and cheese, chicken mole without beans but with fresh, whole sprigs of cilantro.

The one bit of insiderish knowledge I picked up was of the negative type: I went to the El Burritos three times by myself and got takeout with good results. But the one time I brought friends we didn't get there until just before closing time, and the food was a mess. The mole was strangely watery, as though someone had tried to dilute a thickened pan; they had run out of guacamole; and there was no more of the day's vegetable filling. I wouldn't go again to either of the places after 1:00 p.m., because the food seems to get exhausted in the steam trays.

I am definitely going to try to go back on a Tuesday though, because that's when the chicken verde is served. Alexander says it's a cult favorite, drawing people through the skyways from a mile off. ("If we don't have the chicken verde, people call me up at Alexander's and say, 'Jeff. Now what the heck is going on?'") I believe it: When I was there for beef diablo day, which arrives every other Friday, I found an engineer who comes in all the way from Eagan for the things.

I don't know how he ever found it. For those of you who don't know where the Northstar Center is, my best advice is to take to drink, because this sentence marks the end of hope for you. Yes, some could argue that it's simply west of Second Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets, but that's like arguing a burrito is just a taco made Cadillac-size. It's not; it's a different thing altogether. It's taco plus California plus big. Truly, the Northstar Center isn't just skyway; it's where the skyway goes mad, seizing all the passers-through, whisking them into a rabbit hole of an escalator, spitting them out into a corridor made of half mirrors and half travel agents under glass, then driving them toward a black-and-white tiled multilevel terrace defined by a Burger King and an Arby's on the far edges, a fruit stand in the middle, and an open-air Saturn showroom with cars nosing ominously toward the fruit. The whole tableau suggests, above all, an action-adventure movie. ("No! Keanu! He's not going to drive straight through the--" [squealing tires, flying watermelons, the police chief skids in, slipping on a banana].)

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