1113 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis;
Hours: Monday-Saturday 7:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.; Sunday 8:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.
Maria Hoyos battles clichés wherever she goes. She hails from Medellín, Colombia, and proudly says so on the menu at her sunny breakfast hotspot, Maria's Café. But while she'd rather you think of Medellín as she does, as the "City of Flowers," most days it seems like everyone only wants to talk about one of Medellín's less floral exports: cocaine. "Always people who come in here think Colombia is just drugs," she says, exasperated. "But we have better things than that."
Worse, when Hoyos returns to Colombia to visit, it seems like Colombians only want to talk about another kind of snow: Minnesota's blizzard and road-salt kind, which they assume is piled up to the sky year round. "No one believes me when I say it, but Minneapolis looks very much like my hometown, especially in the fall and the spring. The trees, the gardens, the modern architecture in the downtowns, the temperature, everything. Of course, in my hometown it is like spring all the time, but I think the seasons are beautiful." So take that, all you snow-obsessives on your various continents.
Luckily, Hoyos doesn't go into battle unarmed; she has several formidable weapons. First among them are her ambrosial corn pancakes. What can be said about these beauties that hasn't been said before? When Hoyos was manager at the late, lamented Rick's Ol'Time Café, lines snaked into the parking lot every weekend as people waited to get an order of thick, fluffy, bubbly golden cakes. When she moved to 56th and Lyndale to open Maria's Breakfast Club, she took her accolades with her, and fans massed for those same plate-sized brown beauties. There was a collective shock to the system when Maria closed her restaurant and spent two and a half years working in country-club kitchens, but then she opened her new place last January.
The pancakes are back, and there aren't enough superlatives for them. Send to the kitchen for the corn pancakes ($2.75 for one plate-sized cake, $5.25 for two) and let the bliss begin: sweet and crunchy with corn, comforting and chewy, surprisingly light, overall. They're enormous, they're rich, but they're plain and sustaining--what more is there? Well, there's also the special plantain pancake ($2.75 for one), wherein ripe, sweet plantains fill out plump pancake midsections. A mango pancake is nearly dessertlike, bursting with large sections of mango and dressed with a pretty grid of drizzled mango sauce. (To tell you the truth, though, I had to force myself to order the mango pancakes. It's deeply counterintuitive to go to Maria's Café and not order the corn pancakes, like going to Rome for the Chinese food.)
Venturing deeper into the menu yielded a handful of treasures: The kitchen does a marvelous job with sandwiches. I'll never forget the provocatively sour filling in the marinated eggplant sandwich ($5.50); lemon-soaked slices of eggplant grilled between thick slices of wheat bread, along with sprouts, chopped garlic, and Swiss cheese. It was crunchy, chewy, sour, creamy--basically everything that's attractive about a Reuben without the fattiness, or the meat. A BLT ($5.25) was excellent, done with lots of bacon, ripe tomatoes undamaged by refrigerator storage, and good leaf lettuce. All the sandwiches come with your choice of pale slices of griddled potato (called American fries), corn chips, or apple chips, which are crisp, dried slices of apple dusted with cinnamon and sugar. I didn't try the grilled cheese ($4.85), but the triple-decker I once saw on my way out the door looked glorious.
Dairy-eating vegetarians should note that the restaurant also serves two more meat-free sandwiches, an egg sandwich with Swiss cheese and vegetables ($5.25) and an avocado sandwich with cream cheese and onion. Burgers (from $4.85 for a third of a pound, with 80 cents for add-ons like cheese) were also very good; soft, not over-handled, and served on really good seeded buns.
While Maria's has mastered American diner classics, don't come here for Mexican-American restaurant standbys. I thought the restaurant's special quesadilla ($6.95), made with mozzarella and Cheddar cheese, as well as chopped green bell peppers, onion, tomatoes, and beef or chicken, was too bland, arriving as pale as bagged tortillas. Worse, I didn't find anything to like about the salsa that came with them--it tasted cooked and bland, no better than a jar of Pace. I also tried the huevos pericos burrito ($5.95) which had nothing really to recommend it; the eggs, cooked with sautéed onions, tomatoes, and scallions, were surprisingly bland, and the other ingredients were bland too, leaving an overall impression of a warm porridge burrito. Chili was also off-putting. The bowl I had ($2.95 for a cup, $4.25 a bowl) tasted very nearly unseasoned; it was more like beef, tomato, and kidney bean soup.
Desserts were better. Colombian flan ($3.50) was particularly memorable; served in a night-dark, mouth-puckeringly bitter caramel, it brought a new, starker dimension to the sometimes pallid dessert. I liked it for its contrast of bitter and creamy. Hoyos says that her flan is purposely made darker than the golden Mexican flan most diners are used to, and that it's best enjoyed with a cup of--what else?--Colombian coffee ($1.50). Those familiar with the old parking-lot wait that Hoyos's pancakes originally inspired will be delighted to know that this was flan I didn't have to stand in line for. For good or for ill, as of this writing Maria's Café is wrestling with another cliché, namely Street Construction Drives Away Customers. East Franklin around Maria's (which is at 11th Avenue) was being entirely repaved during my visits. Hoyos says the obstacles have cut her business by more than half. Take heart, though--the construction should end sometime in the next few weeks, and the street is transformed. You won't believe it.
Once the lines are all painted on the asphalt, however, fans of Maria's Café will have more to rejoice about than perfect pancakes and a yin-yang dish of sweet and bitter flan, for Hoyos says that when the construction ends she will begin to serve dinner Thursday through Saturday nights. Expect Colombian specialties priced at around $11. I've been trying to figure it out, and I think that once Maria's starts serving dinner it will be one of only a few table-service restaurants to do so in the giant swath of Phillips bordered by I-94 on the north, I-35W on the west, Cedar Avenue on the east and the old railroad tracks where the Midtown Greenway is going on the south. What's it been like pioneering in this long-troubled region? Don't get Maria started on the clichés about the neighborhood. "I have been here since last January," she says, "and yes, when I first started coming here I was a little scared. But in nine months nothing bad has happened--no graffiti, no broken windows, nothing. This neighborhood is full of beautiful people. My old customers, they all come to visit me. They come from Rochester, from Minnetonka, from Lino Lakes. They come from the country clubs. They have never been to this neighborhood before, but when they come, they just love it, too."
People from Minnetonka are racing into Phillips for pancakes and loving it? That's good pancakes. Keep an open mind, says Hoyos, keep an open mind. Minnesota is more than snow, Colombia is more than the other snow. "Always there are nice people, and working people, and people who are trying to make the community better." And, always, there are pancakes.
NOT A BASIL'S REVIEW: Dude, I am sooooo not reviewing Basil's. The degree to which I am not reviewing Basil's is like so out there it can barely be calculated. I mean, I totally thought I was going to review Basil's. My mailbox was all clogged with gunk about how they had a new chef and a new look and were gunning to be taken more seriously. I could see the headline already: "More than the Mary Tyler Moore table!" Then I went there for lunch, and it was awful. Then I went there for lunch again, and it was worse. And then I just decided, for the first time in years, to just pull the plug on the whole endeavor. Were any of you going to go there anyway? If you were, here's a fact: Your bread will come in a plastic, faux terra-cotta plant saucer. (Waiter! Where's my trowel?)
And here are a few opinions: The appetizer of artichoke lemon fritters ($6.95) were greasy balls of deep fried batter, semi-attached to tasteless artichoke bottoms; another appetizer of white truffle ravioli ($8.25) was so freezer-burned that the fillings tasted like truffled ground memo pads. An entrée of polenta-dusted halibut ($16.95) was the best thing; the fish was tender and the smoked-tomato Provençal sauce that surrounded it was merely salty and inoffensive. But it was the lemon linguini ($9.95) that put me off the joint for good. Painfully salty, bright-pink smoked chicken butted heads with an oil slick of air freshener tasting lemon-sauce. Ugh. Normally I go back to a place that I'm going to write a full negative review of four times. But it wasn't merely the thought of two more Basil's meals that changed my mind. No, it was the moment when my server assured me that this lemon linguini was one of the most popular things that Basil's had ever served--so popular, in fact, that it was carried over from the old menu to the new.
Then it hit me like a gut full of oil slick: You don't go to Basil's. I just thought you went to Basil's. I mistook this hotel restaurant in the Marquette, with its prime position overlooking the Crystal Court, for an actual restaurant. But after a closer look I realized that none of my readers could possibly go to Basil's--and certainly not twice. Then I was saved, as the Restaurant Critic Fairy appeared on my shoulder and whispered the all-important third golden rule: Never give a negative review to a restaurant people wouldn't go to anyway. I'm off the hook! Dodged a bullet! Out of the frying pan, out of the fire! No more Basil's meals for me, because I ain't reviewing the place.... (Basil's; 710 Marquette Ave., Minneapolis--overlooking the Crystal Court at the heart of the IDS--612-376-7404.)
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