La Vina dishes up twice the spice

Restaurant does both Mexican and Ecuadorian cuisine well

What Minneapolis really needed was an inviting, dependable, Mexican/Ecuadorian restaurant. This transcendental truth didn't become obvious until La Vina opened its doors at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Lake Street in Minneapolis, but there you have it. The two cuisines, both ably represented by more than a dozen dishes on the restaurant's vertically bisected menu, play very nicely with one another, supportive and overlapping but not redundant.

Many of the Ecuadorian entrées are surprisingly reminiscent of Midwestern comfort food, with a South American twist. An adobo roasted half-chicken ($9.99) turned out to taste and look like a deconstructed chicken potpie, minus the crust. The meat was tender and yielding, rich in creamy, chicken-broth enhanced flavor and moist, delicate skin, flanked by garlic mashed potatoes and a fleet of gorgeous-looking but (sadly) largely flavorless vegetables that almost certainly hailed from a giant plastic bag in a freezer. A churrasco dish ($12.99) came with tender grilled strips of pork, a small mountain of rice topped by a fried egg, and an ample side of guacamole. Every hearty element played nicely with its neighbors, and within moments the whole dish collapsed into a joyfully chaotic hash.

On the Mexican side of things, an order of enchiladas verdes ($9.99) took the experience up another notch and a half. Few things have more potential for ugliness than enchiladas, which often arrive at the table looking like squashed condoms covered in a surface scum of molten cheese and refried beans. La Vina's plating featured three perfect rings of raw red onion sitting atop four neat, identical enchiladas covered in an artfully zigzagging spray of light and mild sour cream. The enchiladas themselves were delicate, and while cheese was a distinct player, it didn't smash every other competing flavor off the plate, as is so often the case. The onions, as it turned out, were a perfect grace note, adding a bracing bit of zest to an otherwise (delightfully) nap-inducing entrée.

A sizzling cast-iron platter of fajitas mixtas ($12.99) was as solid as they come. Two people could comfortably gorge on the embarrassingly huge and competently prepared stack of grilled beef strips, chicken, red and green peppers, onions, whole shrimp, guacamole, beans with cojito cheese, and shredded lettuce. The tortillas tasted fresh and tender, and there were plenty of them; prepare to share, surrender, or burst your stomach. With some drinks and a generous expenditure of time, these things could be the linchpin of a hell of an entertaining evening.

With its disarmingly simple dining room, and without packing much gastronomic pretense, La Vina executes its dual mandate with a level of skill and joy that should, if there's any justice, keep the place humming for years. Just be sure to bring a friend if you order the fajitas.

 
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