By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Hannah Sayle
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
611 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
Hildegarde is dead. I didn't actually know that Hildegarde was alive until I read her obituaries, but she was, at least until she died a couple weeks ago, at the age of 99. I am in complete awe. According to the New York Times and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she was a singer, a cabaret performer, perhaps the very first of the one-named stars, and, generally, one of the greats of her day--that day stretching from the 1930s through the 1950s. She was on the cover of Life magazine in 1939, for instance, toured the country with her own orchestra, handed out long-stemmed roses to her adoring international audience, and was pulling down $17,500 a week plus 50 percent of the gross over $80,000 in 1946, when numbers didn't actually even go that high. Most mind-bogglingly though, Hildegarde, back in 1961, published a book called Over 50...So What! Can you imagine coming out with a book whose subject is, "Well, I'm pretty old now; I know you can't believe it, as I've been so famous for being young." And then you go and live for another 54 years?
All of which makes me feel that, yes, life is very short. But on the other hand, life can also be surprisingly long.
For instance, would you believe we have all lived long enough to see the birth of healthy local Mexican food? Seriously. The Twin Cities, home to the sour cream in-and-out chimichanga (with fries), the home to mayonnaise-based guacamole, is also suddenly home to not one, but two places serving quick, healthy, authentic Mexican fare just like what your mama, your yoga teacher, and your cardiologist want you to eat.
The more remarkable of the two is called Natural Escape, and it is completely and utterly hidden from ordinary mortals. You know that strip of Lyndale Avenue just south of Highway 62 in Richfield? Across from the Lyndale Garden Center? Well, go there and you'll see a strip of buildings that look solely like office space. But one of those offices is not like the others, one of them just doesn't belong: It's not an office site, but instead a place offering the best vegetarian Mexican food in the region. Find it and you'll find Claudia Zermeno, the one-woman whirlwind who serves as the tiny restaurant's sole host, cook, server, server's assistant, juicer, and pastry chef.
The menu is brief, but excellent in what it does offer: A dozen juices, run through the juicer to order by Claudia, ranging from sweet treats made of guava and melon, to super-healthy options, with beets, carrots, parsley, and such. (Most juices cost around $4.25.) There are a few tostadas, topped with lettuce, diced tomato, and your choice of tender sliced cactus, a chicken topping of the day, or Claudia's special Mexican-style tuna salad, a mayonnaise-free concoction made with circles of black olive, cilantro, onion, and some secret magic that makes it taste far more special than the words "tuna salad" suggest.
After that, the menu is all, more or less, sandwiches. One of the best is the hot, open-faced mollete ($5). This is, simply, two large slices of bread, warmed, topped with Claudia's homemade warm, earthy black beans, and then with a made-to-order mélange of tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and olive oil, and a scattering of melted queso fresco and Muenster. That's it--beans, bread, a little more. But, like so many foods, sometimes when a very simple thing is done very well it achieves its own little bit of magic: A meal of mollete is incredibly satisfying, earthy, clear, and direct, and, in the simplest possible way, excellent.
Other sandwiches are simple variations on all of this. One likeable vegetarian example has lettuce, tomato, spinach leaves, and slices of just-cut avocado; another has slices of nopal, the tender cactus, subtly, almost imperceptibly spiced with serrano pepper, and piled in the bread with black beans, mayonnaise, tomato, onions, cilantro, and the two sorts of cheese.
Claudia prides herself on her healthy cooking. Her black beans, she says, have no added salt, and no fat. "I was working really hard, with two full-time jobs, and found myself looking for a place to eat healthy, to find normal Mexican food, healthy food, like we eat at home in Mexico," she told me in a phone interview. "If you're a woman, you don't want to eat all these things that give you extra pounds, but everything I found here was too salty, fried, or greasy. And you never see what's in the kitchen--who knows what's going on back there? So I just decided to have a place with a kitchen in front of everybody so anyone can see what they're getting."
Indeed, the kitchen at Natural Escape is a simple prep area with chilled containers for the cold vegetables and warm steam-trays for the warm ones; it is truly a place with nothing to hide. The two chicken dishes she offers are the absolute essence of scratch cooking. To make them she cooks whole chickens, picks them clear of bone, skin, and fat, and blends them up with a dusky, piquant achiote spice mixture for her chicken pibil, or with a sweet mole sauce for the mole sandwich. They taste like food that's been fussed over by someone worried about your health: clean, pure, appetizing, filling, and not one unnecessary gram of fat. (There's also a case to be made that Claudia worries equally about your wallet: The sandwiches are enormous, and one of the $5-ish vegetarian ones or $6-or-so chicken ones easily provides lunch for two.)
The desserts follow the same "what your mom would make you" theme. You can get a banana, sliced, drizzled with Mexican caramel sauce ($2), a banana, sliced, drizzled with Mexican sour cream, cinnamon, and sugar ($2), or a fruit cocktail with apple, strawberry, honey, and cinnamon, for $3. Even the least healthy item in the restaurant, a square of homemade walnut fudge, which Claudia calls her chocolate-roll, feels less like a decadent dessert and more like the treat you get for helping Grandma put up new shelf paper in the kitchen. Natural Escape is just wholesome, healthy, and everyday, in the best way. It's also got one of the worst restaurant locations in modern memory, so please, vegetarians of the south side, won't you make a special effort to give this tiny one-woman spot a whirl? Attention is needed.
Meanwhile, 34 blocks due north, a few doors off Lyndale Avenue at Lake Street, a new little gem in the rough is struggling to find itself. I speak here of Café Limón, a mostly takeout restaurant founded by Brenda Ruiz with the help of her brother Hector, the force behind popular Spanish/pan-Latin restaurant El Meson. I say the restaurant is struggling to find itself because the majority of its menu offerings are pan-Latin/American catering-kitchen classics, like Caesar salads and lemongrass chicken breast or beef tenderloin sandwiches. Skip all of that. The truly delicious, wonderful, even, I say, stirring things on offer at Café Limón are all the most purely Mexican: The batidos and tamales are phenomenal.
Batidos are basically fruit and yogurt smoothies made with a little sugar, but as the yogurt in question is special, ultra-thick, extra-rich Mexican-style yogurt, the things tend to taste like a dessert fruit soup: rib-sticking, joyful, fruity, and just lusciously tasty. They make the smoothies at a place like Sola Squeeze taste like chemical water. When I tried the batidos ($2.95), they were available in blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, banana, and peach, but when I spoke to Brenda Ruiz on the phone she said that there would soon be more flavors, with guava and mango heading the list.
The tamales ($1.50) are, as I said, phenomenal, but also exasperating. The restaurant regularly runs out of them toward the end of the day, except on days when they don't have them at all. That said, these darlings are worth the hunt. The vegetarian tamale, filled with oven-cooked tomato, caramelized onion, and queso fresco, tastes so big and complete, it's like the whole world of simple food in a few inches of corn husk. The chipotle chicken is tender and smoky, the dry-pepper roast pork tamale is a lot of tender corn and just enough rich, spicy meat to give it backbone.
One other fantastic dish I had at Café Limón was a fruit cocktail made with about a pound of careful squares of just-cut mango, papaya, cantaloupe, watermelon, orange, banana, pineapple, strawberry, and fresh whole raspberries, all of it tossed with crisp granola, sunflower seeds, flakes of coconut, raisins, and chopped pecans, united with a bit of honey. About halfway through this health extravaganza I felt so energetic and vital that I became entirely convinced that I was the sort of person who did things like backpack through the Yucatán. Later I remembered that the Yucatán has bugs in it, and so took a nap. Still, it was a glorious moment.
Which is to say that my hearty advice to Café Limón is to focus on its fresh and simple Mexican options. There is a whole world of Anglos out here who haven't the slightest idea how or where to come up with utterly commonplace Mexican foods like, say, a cucumber and fruit salad with lime juice and chili salt. No idea. And we will happily beat a path to the door of anyone providing them--if they're in our neighborhood and open when we get off work. Because we're all trying to live the life of Hildegarde, sashaying on toward 99 in opera gloves, looking cute and feeling good all the while.