Fast, Cheap, Great

Is there anyplace to get a great, cheap meal in this town anymore? Boy howdy, is there—here are six

 

Taqueria La Hacienda #2

My love for Taqueria La Hacienda and their al pastor is well known: I'd say the number-one thing that strangers say to me in bars is, "Dude, that thing, that is like getting hit by a wonderful bulldozer! I love that thing!" If you're not familiar with that thing, sit on down, because it's nuts. Okay, Lebanese immigrants settled in Mexico back in the mists of time, and as cultures fused, a new sort of gyros cone was born, this one made with pork and chilies, and topped with a roasting pineapple, which bastes the turning meat as it spins. Taqueria La Hacienda opened a beguilingly scented cone of said al pastor in the Mercado Central, and quickly started capturing Best Tacos in the Twin Cities awards.

Soon it expanded to a little shop right off the highway and debuted a series of "alambres," which are your choice of meat, griddled hard and hot with bacon, onions, and bell peppers and then finished with cheese and spread out on a raft made of half a dozen or so corn tortillas. When you get one of Taqueria La Hacienda's alambres made with their rich and spicy al pastor, it's just insanity: You know how physicists are always running atoms into one another in supercolliders and generating new elements with names like Einsteinium? Well, that's kind of what Taqueria La Hacienda has done. This thing just defies all previous known laws of pork because it's just that rich, that crispy, meaty, bacony, porky, cheesy—porkium. Can we just have a new element called "porkium" and say that's what this thing is made of?

In any event, good things come to people who do good things, and last summer Taqueria La Hacienda vacated its teensy spot by the highway and set up shop in a giant, prettily painted space that's kind of just a little farther down Lake Street. I say "kind of" because entry to the building is counterintuitive; the only way in at night is through a parking lot on Clinton Avenue, but you'll find it. Because it's worth it. Everything I've ever had at Taqueria La Hacienda has been great: great tacos (the double-tortilla, wee, authentic Mexican kind, from $1.60); big combo plates in which fresh meats are served with rice, beans, salsa, warm tortillas, and the works (from $6.45); nice perks like plates of roasty grilled onions (cebollitas, $1.50). I always order an alambre (and yes, I do know that "alambre" means "wire," and refers to a kabob, and not always to this thing, but what am I supposed to do about it?).

I took a friend there who is Mexican-food phobic because all he's ever had is the Midwestern gringo kind with the cold beans and plops of sour cream, and he was rendered speechless, except for one phrase. "You've got to be kidding me," he said. And then he said it again. "You've got to be kidding me." He ate more of the porkium. Then he said, "You've got to be kidding me" about eight more times until his plate was empty. It was like being in an avant-garde theatrical production, except with no angst. "I love Mexican food!" he exclaimed as we left.

 

Rice Paper

The first time I reviewed Rice Paper, I felt ridiculous—the Vietnamese restaurant was so tiny that even two or three new customers would terrify the fire marshals. Since then, however, the restaurant has expanded to a good four or five times its former size, and I failed to notice. But then I had dinner there a few weeks ago, and remembered it's one of the most charming affordable restaurants in the entire state.

Appetizers like tofu puffs ($5.50) are the model of adorable—the puffs as crisp as winter breezes, the garnishes of just-roasted crushed peanuts and fried shallots making the crispy also savory and delicious. Another Rice Paper classic, the Grapefruit Festivity ($6.95), displays more cooking ingenuity, with a few grapefruit segments, a fresh cilantro and pac peo (a sharp kind of Vietnamese mint) salad, and steamed shrimp, than some chefs show in their whole careers. Rice Paper has added a small but useful wine and beer list to go with their expanded seating area, as well as a few meatier options to complement their strong vegetarian menu. I tried the song huong beef, which is a titch more expensive than most Rice Paper offerings at $15.95, but found the grilled, marinated beef kabob to be tender, sweet, and roasty, and just a delight when paired with the wide array of fresh Vietnamese herbs and such that accompany it. If you gave up on Rice Paper because you could never find a seat, please know it's time to try again.

 

Punch Neapolitan Pizza

The first time I went to the new Punch Pizza, which took over the old Starlight Lounge nightclub spot in Nordeast across from Kramarczuk, I thought: By god, they've finally done it. They've finally made a Punch quick-serve that I can get behind. The room is prettily, dimly lit, the wooden tables are sturdy and rustic, the walls are dominated by giant modern paintings—it felt like a restaurant. I walked in, we got a cozy booth in the back, my food came up instantly, and, as I munched on my pizza and sipped from a real glass filled with Summit Winter ale, I thought: This is just fantastic! Restaurant-quality food, bargain prices! After all, Punch's pizza is a Twin Cities legend, fired in real wood-burning ovens at 800 degrees; they are all blister, woodsmoke, and tension between buoyant dough and the instant crisp of an inferno of an oven. The ingredients are top-quality. What's not to like?

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