King of the Grill

The Twin Cities' Mexican food scene: Viva la revolución

The tamales ($1.50) are my last pick for really extraordinary things at El Ray. It's not just the pork filling that does it--though it is smoky, permeated by chiles, and rich as dessert--but more the surrounding cornmeal batter, which has an especially coarse ground, rendering the tamales unusually chewy, rustic, and charming. And boy oh boy, once that tamale sucks in some of the sauce from the parrillada, there isn't a better bite of food anywhere.

I tried a dozen other things on the menu, but never found anything as spectacular as the parrillada, the tamales, or the dishes that showcase the al pastor or carnitas. The restaurant has about a million seafood dishes, but I never found the perfect one. They serve six varieties of cold tomato-based seafood cocktail: I liked best the shrimp one ($8.99), in which lemony shrimp swam in a brisk citrus-tinged tomato juice. Ensalada de pulpo enamorado bears mention simply because it is such a loony Lutheran Church Basement Mexican dish.

No, really: Order it and you get a whole oval platter heaped up with a white salad of cold octopus, cut into cubes, tossed with little shrimps, cubes of avocado, onions, tomatoes, a tiny bit of jalapeño, lots of cilantro, and about a gallon of mayonnaise. It tastes nothing but chill, light, mayonnaisy, and is about as friendly as a DFLer first thing in the morning at the milk booth, if you know what I mean. It's one of those dishes that's just crying out for some mandarin chicken salad and a scoop of ambrosia, held in one hand on a paper plate while you fiddle with the coffee urn with the other.

Luis Perez enjoys a seafood parillada while listening to Mariachi Estrella
Sean Smuda
Luis Perez enjoys a seafood parillada while listening to Mariachi Estrella

Yes, I said it's Lutheran Church Basement Mexican. I know that you think that Lutheran Church Basement Mexican starts with guacamole made with green food coloring, sour cream, and garlic powder, and ends with seven-layer bean dip--but no. I am declaring those days over. From this point forward it's going to be all about octopus.

Hey, you already know how a swelling ocean raises all boats? Well, so it goes for cities. A fast-growing restaurant scene raises all plates.

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