Meal of Fortune

New Nuevo Latino Restaurant Café Ena Is Occasionally Delightful, Occasionally Sloppy—So Ask Yourself, Do You Feel Lucky?

Café Ena
4601 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.824.4441

You know what's fun? Drinking sprightly rosé wines in a room full of your laughing neighbors while they exclaim over vacation pictures, trade wedding-shower gifts, ooh and ah over babies, and make short work of fruity pitchers of sangria.

You know what's not any fun at all? Getting really stressed out over whether the food that is going to arrive at your table in the midst of all this happy hubbub will be delightful, spicy Nuevo Latino fare or sloppy, tasteless dreck.

Balancing act: A warm, fun atmomsphere vs. maddeningly inconsistent food
Tony Nelson
Balancing act: A warm, fun atmomsphere vs. maddeningly inconsistent food

Location Info

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Cafe Ena

4601 Grand Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55419

Category: Restaurant > Latin American

Region: Southwest Minneapolis

My advice to you: If you want to dine at south Minneapolis's newest, liveliest Nuevo Latino restaurant, Café Ena, decide you're going to be happy at the outset, and you will be.

There's actually a lot to love about Café Ena, brand-new sister to south Minneapolis's beloved pan-Latin American restaurant El Meson. The new restaurant, recently a corner grocery, has a nice urban-rustic air to it, with lots of earth-tone tiles and heavy wooden beams. The wine list is terrific and very usable, with most bottles in the low $20s, and most sourced from the countries Nuevo Latino wine lists should be sourced from: Argentina, Chile, and Spain—and even a couple of wines from Mexico's Baja Peninsula. I was particularly head-over-heels about a special summertime rosé list of 10 pink wines, all available for $22 a bottle, $8 a glass, or $8 for a flight of three of the restaurant's choice.

The bubbly pink Spanish cava, Cresta Rosa, for instance, smelled like strawberries but was dry and elegant going down; there's nothing nicer on a summery Minneapolis night. Except perhaps the hauntingly violet-touched Cabernet Franc French rosé from Wilfrid Rousse.

That wine list does a lot to make friends: Once, when I went to Café Ena for a 7:30 reservation, we weren't seated till nearly 8:15, but not one person in my group minded, for we had such a nice time standing with our glasses of rosé and watching the passing foot traffic. That traffic, by the way, was often so cute that it defied common sense: It was entirely composed of cooing babies bundled in chic strollers, golden retrievers wearing pirate-themed neck bandanas, and little girls spinning in the center of enormous pink tulle tutus worn over their jeans. Is 46th and Grand the new epicenter of the domestic adorable in south Minneapolis?

It is if you order the arepas ($7.95) and the queso fundido ($6.95). In my experience, those two are the restaurant's most reliable appetizers. Summon the arepas, and you get crispy little homemade blue-corn pancakes topped with your choice of spicy pulled chicken tinga or smoky, silky chiles con crema—thin-sliced poblano chiles in a loose onion and cream sauce. Pop a forkful in your mouth and you get a well-balanced blend of amped-up comfort food, with the tender corn cake and spicy topping complementing one another perfectly. The queso fundido is a charmer: Panela cheese (a young, fresh, cow's milk cheese) is fried hard until it becomes beautifully brown and bubbly, then it's dressed with a bright green, pureed tomatillo-and-avocado sauce and decorated with generous amounts of the fresh tomato and onion-relish pico de gallo. I really enjoyed the chile en nogada ($8.95), a traditional dish from the state of Puebla in which a poblano pepper is roasted, split, and then stuffed with a sweet and spicy mixture of raisins, ground beef, and almonds, the whole thing united by a walnut-apple sauce and a pomegranate glaze. I really liked the winter spices, meat, nuts, and fruit that make this dish not unlike a Christmas mincemeat, but everyone I was with hated it—which explains why whenever I've made a mincemeat pie it's abandoned on the holiday buffet. (You know, there's no meat in a modern mincemeat! It's all nuts. Darn literalists.)

Everything else I tried from Café Ena's appetizer selection was an utter mess—and I tried most everything, and much of it twice. The Oaxacan tamale ($7.95) was invariably dry, crumbly, and overcooked—inexplicable, as the thing should have been resting safe and moist in its banana leaf. I had the ceviche duo ($10.95) three times, and it was always one ceviche made with shrimp and squid rings, and another made with shrimp, squid, and sea legs, each vaguely lemony, each very watery, and neither at all appealing. The slices of fried plantains on the plate with the ceviche were a nice touch, but still. Ensalada de atun ($11.95) was a mushy, overdressed, beach-hotel sort of dish made with everything and the kitchen sink, which in this case included coriander-crusted ahi tuna, baby spinach, avocado, hearts of palm, oranges, and an oversweet dressing. Cangrejo ($9.95) was crab meat that tasted tinned and tinny, in another oversweet dressing.

The entrees I tried from Café Ena ran the gamut from merely bad to inconsistent to the point of madness—I mean really, they will drive you mad. The first time I had the turkey mole ($16.95), for instance, it was a dark, dry, smashed-flat, off-putting thing that tasted like a bitter war between molasses and burnt coffee, but it came with a side of the most marvelous cinnamon-touched beans I've ever tasted—everyone at the table was falling over themselves to spear a forkful of the things. The second time I got the turkey mole, the turkey was tender, the sauce tasted like a melted milk chocolate bar, and the beans were plain as beans.

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