Mexican Revolution

Pre-Columbian, super-authentic Mexican where eat street meets downtown

Salsa A La Salsa Mexican Grill
1420 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
612.813.1970

Hey, do you remember the past? No, not that unfortunate episode with the rodeo clown when you lost your favorite shoes, the tamale-relevant parts, I mean. Do you? I do. When ours was the land of the double-cheese chimichanga and guacamole was made with both pivotal food groups of mayonnaise and sour cream--hold the onion salt?

I mean, when I first washed up on these elm-tree'd shores, in terms of Mexican food, it was like nothing so much as blundering into some kind of South Sea island where the natives had been so beautifully untouched by the modern world that they were happily sticking copper plates into their lips and waiting for Amelia Earhart to touch down. It was so bizarre. Old school, bona fide Mexican families had been here for three and four generations, and had evolved these ultra-dairy, ultra-fried, iceberg-lettuce-stuffed creations that were... that were... I see. We have children present. Well, hmm. Filling. They were filling.

And so I would quiz these nice families as to why their food was so very, very filling, and they would explain their cuisine to me with that cheerful nodding and smiling that you offer a six-year-old who's asked you for the hundredth time why people can't put their fingers into wall outlets. "Duh," they'd explain. "Minnesotans! Minnesotans can't eat anything spicy or weird, because even a single molecule of chili could violently rupture their delicate Swedish equilibriums, sending them scrambling for their Volvos and chasing them right into the safe cover of their cream of mushroom soup-stocked kitchens, forever! Forever and ever!" Like off-the-grid survivalists in bomb shelters, except with fewer AK-47s and more MPR coffee mugs and jars of onion salt.

That was then. Regular readers will know I've been tracking trends obsessively, trying to chart the emergence of a real Mexican restaurant we can all get behind, one that offers authentic food in a nice room, with beer, and (dare to dream!) margaritas; one that offers the chef talent that has been immigrating here in droves from Mexico and Central America along with in-the-city convenience, and all the pleasantries of a restaurant.

And I think, I almost, almost am ready to declare that we have it. And it is right at one end of the thrilling spicy Mexican L that has been traced smack dab through the middle of Minneapolis, from the river, down Lake Street to Nicollet Avenue, and down Nicollet to downtown. Right at the end of that L, where Nicollet feeds into downtown, is Salsa a la Salsa.

I know, it's not a memorable name. And, to tell you the truth, the menu is so haphazardly and repetitively organized that it is easy to order badly, and thus miss the many, many gems that the kitchen is capable of producing. But gosh darn it, I think that inside this family restaurant, in its big, rustic room, is the Mexican restaurant of our inevitable glowing Manifest Destiny! If only they could get some customers, I mean.

So, all of you south Minneapolis types who grew up in those mushroom soup kitchens and gave up on our Mexican sour-cream fry-offs, now is the time to creep tentatively from your safe nests of Diesel jeans and Whole Foods deli containers, and see that things aren't as bad as you remember.

If you only try it, I think your minds will be forever changed by the mixiotes de pollo ($9.99). The dish is made by filling a fresh banana leaf with chicken, avocado leaves, handfuls of fresh herbs, plenty of spices, and strips of cactus leaf, and steaming it until the entire thing takes on a haunting, hard-to-pin-down taste that is all vegetal brush and tender, subtle chicken, like tasting a jungle seen through steam and squint. It's wonderful.

Wonderful Minnesota Mexican? I'm telling you, it's happening.

And here's how: It turns out the manufacturer of such wonders is Lorenzo Azria, who owns Salsa a la Salsa with his wife Elvia, and runs it with the help of plenty of family: His daughter waits tables during the day, his son-in-law at night, and the youngest kids help when they can. Lorenzo grew up in the Mexican village of Popo Park, near the town of Amecameca, which is on the side of those legendary volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Ixtaccihuatl, which are visible from Mexico City.

"Mixiotes is an ancient, pre-Columbian way of cooking," explained Lorenzo, when I talked to him on the phone for this story, "but they used to use the outer skin of maguey leaves. Then, when I grew up, my mom and her family put cactus leaves in everything, because they grow in our backyards." One day Lorenzo saw a recipe for a mixiotes made in aluminum foil--which he thinks is horrible, because it makes the food taste like metal--and got to tinkering, and a few decades later we've got this marvelous dish in Minneapolis.

Lorenzo had plenty of time to tinker. After leaving the side of the volcano he spent most of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s in Los Angeles hotels and catering companies, where he married Elvia (sister to the founder of the Tacos Morelos empire), learned French cooking techniques, watched the California Cuisine revolution, and invented all sorts of dishes that combined authentic Southwestern tastes and techniques with the low-cal, high-taste needs of Los Angeles's high-octane power-players. Lorenzo says he has cooked for Julia Roberts and Jackie Collins, and just ask him about the things he has catered for Danny DeVito's Fourth of July festivities.

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