Authentic Mexican! Open Late!

Taco Morelos

14 W. 26th St., Mpls.

           NEVER HAVE I had so many fans of a particular restaurant come up to me and tug on my sleeve. Time and again lately I've heard, Have you been to Taco Morelos yet? The problem as I first saw it was that I had indeed been to Taco Morelos when it first opened last winter, and found it to be the bearer of rather boring and standard Mexican/American food.

           The place was a bit depressing in appearance, too, with little to announce its departure from the shabby donut shop that used to reside there. Yet for the past two months, people have steadily approached me to tell me that it's simply the greatest: authentic, delicious, and cheap Mexican food, the kind you can find in St. Paul around Concord Street but that is difficult to come by in Minneapolis. Needless to say, the voices melted my resolve. I returned. They were right. To my surprise, I found Taco Morelos sporting a new look and a new menu. The proprietors had likewise worked out all of the kinks in the kitchen.

           Just a few touches have been made with the decor, but they make all the difference in the world. Brightly colored tablecloths have taken the place of white paper ones, and large photographs of Mexico and Mexican scenes adorn the wall. A picnic table outside serves as the patio for outdoor dining.

           The menu now promises "authentic fresh Mexican cooking." The two visits that we made were both occasions of cheerful pandemonium--fathers mopping up children's spilled drinks, lovers giggling to themselves, informal business meetings in progress. All of these people however shared a concentration on the food in front of them. It's hard not to stare at other people's plates here; I myself was transfixed by one lady's bowl of tortilla soup ($4.50), almost big enough to bathe an infant in, glistening with a bit of oil, a beefy broth full of avocado and tomato, and giving off the most tantalizing aroma.

           Drinks will be the first choice put to you, a wonderful thing in the sometimes scorching heat of recent weeks. Natural drinks ($1 per glass) are a nice option, kept in big pots in the cooler. If you're so inclined you can watch as your homemade Jamaica flower drink is poured by the ladle; you'll probably also see your dinner companion finishing your tamarind drink for you even though he or she didn't want one. Our favorite was the rice water drink, sweet, milky, and a little chalky; Yoo Hoo chocolate drink fans (and aren't we all?) should fall head over heels in love with it. Other drinks include Mexican sodas ($1.25), big bottles in various flavors, e.g. lime, tamarind, and guava, fresh squeezed orange juice ($2), milk shakes ($1.75), and coffee drinks ($1.50).

           As for nonliquid refreshment, your choices are many and your difficulty in choosing will be severe. Everything but the tortillas is made on the premises. Tacos, at a mere $1.25, are an easy bet, with your choice of meat (charbroiled steak, Mexican sausage, char-broiled chicken, barbecued pork, and, perhaps slightly less popular with gringos like me, seasoned cow brain and fried pork) wrapped in a tortilla and served with chopped white onions, fresh cilantro, and a mean chile de arbol salsa. (The chile de arbol salsa is not your flimsy garden-variety salsa, stuck together with bits of onion and tomato chunks; it's all about chili peppers. Why bother putting vegetables in your salsa when they're already on the side?)

           Breakfast seems to be served all day, featuring delicious, seasoned messes of scrambled eggs with various ingredients such as ham ($3.50), Mexican sausage ($3.75), and chopped onions, tomatoes, and jalapeño peppers ($3.85), all served with refried beans and rice. My friend's order of huevos a la Oaxaqueña ($3.85)--two eggs over easy with tomatoes, epazote, jalapeño peppers, and garlic sauce--was bitingly delicious, although, personally, all that runny egg yolk makes me queasy. Call it breakfast for those who wake up with a strong stomach.

           My other friend skipped breakfast and shot straight for dinner, relishing every mouthful of his shrimp sautéed in the chile de arbol salsa ($7). Served with rice and refried beans, the whole dish was redolent of garlic. Another favorite is the burrito (a particular favorite of the people who pushed me back to Morelos), a bargain indeed at $2.95. The stuffings include your choice of meat, chopped onions, cilantro, salsa, rice, and refried beans. And the tortas ($2.95) beat a hamburger any day in my book; they consist of your choice of meat (though I found that white cheese substitutes nicely) topped with lettuce, tomato, guacamole, pickled jalapeño peppers, and Mexican cream.

           If you aren't so hungry, you might be happy to share an appetizer with a friend. The nachos here are unpretentious, happy finger food, heaped randomly and generously with refried beans, cheese, lemony guacamole, and salsa ($3.50). If you like your salads to run more fun than nutritious, you'll like the tostada, a salad of iceberg lettuce, tomato, charbroiled chicken, guacamole, and a heap of sour cream all on a crispy, deep-fried flour tortilla ($3.50). It goes without saying after all this that we certainly weren't in any need of dessert, though if we had been, homemade flan and rice pudding would have been ours for the taking ($1.50 each).

           Taco Morelos does the city a great service by being one of the few kitchens in town open beyond 10 p.m. (it's open till 2 a.m. Friday through Sunday), though before you start ordering, make sure you have the cash in hand; no checks or credit cards are accepted at present.


           TIME KEEPS ON SLIPPING: Thought you were safe from seasonal attacks of shopping for baubles and trinkets? No, I say, No! Schumachers' Historic European Hotel and Restaurant will be the site of the Christmas in July Festival, an event that spans three weekends (July 13-14, 20-21, and 27-28). The festival features signings and demonstrations by the creators of popular Christmas collectables and cards, holiday and ethnic entertainment, and family activities. See the Sugar Plum Fairy and other dancers from Loyce Houlton's Nutcracker Fantasy sweat in their tutus. Poke Santa in the belly and learn how to sprinkle on the cookie decorations with gusto. The Cass Gilbert-designed hotel will be decked out in all its Christmas splendor; guests who stay Sunday through Thursday evenings will receive 50 percent off the normal weekend rates. Schumacher's Historic European Hotel and Restaurant is located at 212 W. Main St., New Prague. For information and reservations, call (612) 758-2133.

           FILL YOUR LIPS WITH WINE: Chez Bananas (129 N. Fourth St., Mpls.) is hosting a summer wine tasting at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, July 15, featuring Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio wines from The Wine Company. Refresh spirit and body with selected wines from Oregon, France, and Italy whilst featured speaker Paul Daggett fills you in on the some of the facts of wine. The cost of the event is $25 per person (tax included). Space is limited, so call 340-0032 to reserve your spot.

           FIRE FUEL: It's hot, so why not eat hot food? They give speed to hyperactive kids, you know. Let Aglaia Kremezi's Mediterranean Hot (Artisan/$19.95) be your guide; what follows is a recipe for a distinctively spiced fish entrée.

* 2-4 fresh green chilis, minced

* 1-2 garlic cloves, minced

* 1 tsp. dried mint,
crumbled, or 3 tbsp. chopped fresh mint leaves

* 2-3 tbsp. fresh
lemon juice

* 4-5 tbsp. fruity
extra-virgin olive oil

* salt, to taste

* 1 whole gray mullet, 11/2-2 lb., or any other whole
fish suitable for grilling

* A few grindings of
black pepper

* 1/2 cup finely diced peeled and seeded fresh tomato, drained

* 2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

           Mix the chilis, garlic, mint, lemon juice, and olive oil. Add a little salt and mix thoroughly, then adjust the seasonings. It should be hot. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes to 2 hours.

           Broil the fish on both sides, or grill over a charcoal fire, until just firm, almost done, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and cover with aluminum foil. Let stand for five minutes.

           Uncover the fish, cut it open, and remove the central bone. Spread the fish open on a heat-proof pan. Pour half the sauce over the fish, sprinkle with some pepper, and place under a very hot broiler for a few seconds to brown lightly. Remove from the oven, place the chopped tomatoes in a line down the middle between the two fish halves, sprinkle with the parsley, and serve, passing the rest of the sauce separately. Serves two.

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