High Living

Lake Street's Los Andes Makes the High-Altitude Cuisine of Ecuador and Colombia Accessible, Affordable, and Awfully Good

Los Andres Restaurant
317 W. Lake Street, Minneapolis

Ecuadorians and Colombians live up in the northwestern corner of South America, and even when they're not enjoying their richly varied topography, which plunges from soaring Andean mountaintop to verdant tropical coastline, and their wonderful melting-pot culture, which accents Amerindian and European traditions with a bit of Asian and African flavor, I really doubt they are giving a flying fig about what Minnesotans like to eat for dinner.

I venture this because most Minnesotans I know don't really give much thought to the food Ecuadorians and Colombians eat, aside from assuming it's some other kind of Mexican—not out of any hostility, but just because, you know, life is busy. How many thoughts can you have? And still work that second job to pay your health insurance premium and blog about cupcakes and the dissatisfying never-ending of Lost, I mean.

Jayme Halbritter
All this and TV, too! Manager Virginia Lazo with Los Andesís South American home cooking

But we should start thinking about high-plateau Ecuadorian and Colombian food, the meat and potatoes of it, the shrimp ceviche and peanut-tripe stew of it, the fruit smoothie and apple-scented sparkling wine of it, because we now have Los Andes, a Colombian and Ecuadorian restaurant not too far from Uptown, and the place is a budget-friendly (if barebones and TV-studded) find.

What should you order first? That depends on your personal motivation. If you're primarily on a hunt for deliciousness, I can't recommend the shrimp ceviche ($9.99) enough. This is a very different version from what you'll see in Minneapolis's many upscale, fusion, pan-Latin, mango-mojito restaurants. It's a soup bowl of remarkably tender shrimp swimming in a cold, pale broth of finely ground onions, tomatoes, and citrus juice. The broth is given texture by lots of thinly sliced red onions and big, fresh green leaves of cilantro, the whole thing topped with a handful of crisp, toasted kernels of roasted corn—the things most of us know as corn nuts. Yes, corn nuts! The barely salted kernels have an earthy, roasty, almost peanut-like quality to them, which accents the fresh, sweet qualities of the shrimp and makes the dish seem oriented to a whole other culture than we usually think of with shrimp ceviche. Put it next to a big glass of juicy, crisp, apple-scented Argentinean sparkling wine ($3.49) or a Negra Modelo, and you've got a dish that I predict every up-and-coming cook in town will be raving about for the next six months—it's just that unexpected, and that good.

Also delicious: the meat empanadas ($4.50), which are little fried bundles of dough filled with what tastes like mom's best Iron Range pot roast—not spicy, just wholesome, comforting pockets filled with a beef, potato, and green pea stew ready to make anyone who brings them to the State Fair and puts them on sticks a million dollars. The cheese empanadas ($4.50) are completely different; for these, flaky pastry is shaped into delicate half-moons and filled with a gooey, vanishing cheese. They are so simple, good, and pastry-like that they belong in a French bistro.

However, if your primary motivation in life is curiosity about other cultures, the appetizer for you is the mote pillo ($4.50)—quail-egg-size kernels of whole hominy corn, served hot and tossed with a sort of dressing made of scrambled eggs, the whole thing garnished with fresh scallions. I'm told this is the mashed potatoes, grits, or buttered noodles of its homeland; to me it tasted mostly bland, like grits, though a little hot sauce cured that. The hot sauce in question is the fiery Ecuadorian salsa known as aji (pronounced ah-hee), a cup of which is served with every meal at Los Andes. It's a concoction made mostly of onions and habanero chilies, and it gives anything it touches a nice backbone and zing.

Next, an appetizer for those driven by a hunt for value: the chuzo con arepa ($4.99), a sort of South American beef saté. You get two thin strips of well-marinated, lemony beef, threaded on a wooden skewer and grilled until they achieve a meaty intensity. Ecuador is said to be the land that invented beef jerky, and you get a sense of that proud history in this dish. The meat comes with a bland but good little arepa (a chubby corn cake) and just cries out for a beer and a friend, or at least someone to acknowledge that if this dish were being sold 10 blocks west it would cost three times as much.

Finally, if what you really want is something to take pictures of and blog about, look no further than Los Andes's version of salchipapas ($4.50), a classic Peruvian street food. For these the restaurant cunningly cuts sections of beef hot dog in such a way that, once deep-fried, the hot dogs explode into what can only be described as frankfurter Ninja throwing stars. They come arranged on a bed of French fries with a little ramekin of sweet, tangy dipping sauce, which I'm guessing owes some of its essence to mayonnaise and ketchup, and—frankfurter Ninja throwing stars! We've got it all in the Twin Cities, I tell you.

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