Rincon 38 shows that less is more

The new tapas restaurant packs a lot of flavor into small plates

Rincon 38 shows that less is more
Benjamin Carter Grimes
Rincon's plates are small but complex: (from left) piquillos de atun (sweet peppers with tuna), flan de zetas, and the masterful pulpo (octopus)

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The origin story of why we call tapas tapas (which comes from the Spanish verb tapar, meaning "to cover") is one of the most hotly debated in food history. One widely accepted narrative is that tapas began (in the days long before promotional paper coasters) as simple slices of bread or meat that Andalusian sherry drinkers used to cover their glasses and keep pesky flies away from the sweet wine. Other food historians claim that back in the 1500s shady tavern owners would sell corked wine and try to "cover up" its dubious nature by serving it with a piece of strong-smelling cheese. And some say that tapas were born out of one European king's efforts to curb his public's tendency to overindulge by passing a law that required all drinks to be served with a small plate of food. Regardless of which tale resonates most with you, it's clear that elements from all these stories made their way into the Spanish snacks we now refer to as tapas. Sweet sherry, crusty bread, strong-smelling cheese, and meat (particularly chorizo) are omnipresent in this cuisine. But modern tapas chefs, like the ridiculously talented Hector Ruiz, owner of the new Rincón 38 in Kingfield, have added much more luxury and flair to their tapas vocabulary. At Ruiz's cozy new corner eatery (rincón means "an inside corner" or "a place of privacy," both very apt descriptions of this space), you'll see the yellow tinge of saffron in creamy rice, pimenton (a.k.a Spanish paprika) in everything from rich seafood broth to spunky aioli, balsamic vinegar as old as a sixth-grader, and thick almond-based sauces blended with truffle oil. This food is fabulous, accessible, and completely affordable, especially considering the caliber and complexity of most of these tasty dishes.

Ruiz's origin story as a chef is just as fascinating as the lore of the tapas. Before opening Cafe Ena, his Latin fusion restaurant that's still going strong less than 10 blocks away from Rincón, and El Meson, the now-shuttered small-plates restaurant that blended Spanish and Caribbean flavors, Ruiz put himself through the culinary ringer. After spending his childhood in Mexico, Ruiz returned to the U.S. as a young teenager and worked in kitchens in L.A. and Chicago. Eventually he came to Minnesota to help launch Tucci Bennuch and attend Le Cordon Bleu, where his skills landed him an internship at the legendary Lucas Carton in Paris. The intersection of his finely tuned French technique and love of the hearty, comforting foods of Italy, Basque country, and Latin America are what you'll see and taste in the two dozen small plates on Rincón 38's menu.

Ruiz's seafood dishes are far and away his best and brightest. The piquillos de atun — sweet Spanish peppers stuffed with tuna, onion, and capers — are plopped on top of a baguette with a little yellow tomato and citrus oil, creating the effect of the lightest and loveliest tuna melt you've ever had. We also loved the oven-roasted sea bass, in spite of a slight issue of overseasoning the fish. It was simultaneously flaky and meaty, perched atop creamy and comforting four-cheese polenta and balanced by a crunchy salad of shaved fennel. Golden-crusted scallops were elevated by the unexpected flavor of cardamom, and the massive, head-on langoustines were so sweet and fat you could almost mistake them for dessert. I wasn't bowled over by the calamari — the snaky, cornmeal-dusted planks were just too thick for me and lacked the punch of flavor delivered by almost every other dish, but don't let that discourage you from ordering the other squid dish at Rincón, because it just might be the best thing on the menu. The pulpo plate is composed of chopped pieces of slowly braised octopus, spicy chorizo, some crispy fried potatoes, and a melange of creamy and vinegary sauces. It's a master class in the balance of texture and flavor, yet it's a very rustic dish.

Though the fruits of the sea take center stage, there are still some land-roving proteins on the menu too. There are tender beef pinchos speared with toothpicks; rosy pork tenderloin with crisp, saffron-soaked cauliflower; and bundles of caramelized asparagus wrapped with salty prosciutto. Of the few fully vegetarian offerings, the savory mushroom flan with soft-boiled quail's eggs and the queso frito — two slices of manchego cheese, lightly breaded, fried, and topped with a sweet and clean apple and fennel slaw — seemed to be the best bets. Looking back, the only things I'd skip would be the albondigas (meatballs in tomato sauce), which were just too hard and lacked flavor, and the bacalao (salt cod fritters), which suffered from overfrying, causing a dried-out interior.

Check out more delicious photos from Rincón 38 in Minneapolis...

For small plates, Rincón's are actually pretty generous — much more than a bite or two. I'd recommend getting two plates per person and ordering in rounds so nothing gets cold and you have enough space to pass and share. If you're feeling especially fancy and experimental, Rincón wisely offers its wines by the three-ounce or six-ounce pour, so don't fret over choosing between an albarino to go with your scallops or a garnacha to go with your beef — just get both. I'd opt for this over a carafe of sangria, which was unfortunately fairly watered down.

In the grand tradition of authentic Spanish tapas bars, Rincón opens at 3 p.m. to draw in late-afternoon snackers who are ready for a glass of wine but maybe not hungry enough for full-blown dinner, and it stays open until midnight to accommodate those who love to start late and linger longer. Around 9 p.m. on most of my visits, the restaurant was still steadily busy, though not completely packed — something to keep in mind since Rincón doesn't take reservations. The intimate room seats only about 40 guests at a time, including the bar, which has the best seats in the house as far as I'm concerned. You'll rub elbows with other couples, get up close and personal with all the bottles of wine, and have the best view of all the tossing, frying, and searing going on in the kitchen.

The addition of Hector Ruiz's Rincón 38 is turning this whole intersection at 38th and Grand into a tucked-away foodie destination. With Grand Cafe across the street, Victor's 1959 Cafe sitting kitty-corner, and charming vintage candy shop Sugar Sugar right next door, Rincón, I predict, will augment Kingfield's reputation as the Minneapolis neighborhood most conducive to smaller-scale restaurants. For the opportunity to taste so many dishes of such high caliber in an intimate, come-as-you-are setting like this one, I'd gladly pay double what my bill for four was at Rincón, but I'm even more glad I didn't have to. Just as the word tapas suggests, Rincón has you covered.

Check out more delicious photos from Rincón 38 in Minneapolis...

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