When I heard that Travail was doing its third and final pop-up based on the flavors of Mexico in a temporary Minneapolis location, I was ecstatic. Growing up in a small town in Wisconsin, I mostly encountered Mexican food of the Tex-Mex variety. When not cooked by either of my abuelas, I could find huge platters of this kind of food placed in front of me on plasticky floral tablecloths in harshly lit strip malls, or in combination restaurant-grocery stores. The food was heavy, saucy, often covered in cheese, and definitely delicious… but Mexico is big. Regional cuisines differ vastly south of the border, and tend to include less stringy yellow cheese. I knew I had to check out this pop-up to see what “Modern Mexican” meant to the Travailians.
For KUA (a Nahuatl word for “devour”), the folks at Travail enlisted the help of chef Gustavo Romero, a native of Mexico City, to help diners explore Mexican food beyond basic hard shell Ortega tacos and quesadillas—an honorable mission, for sure. In the spirit of keeping traditional flavors and textures on this prix fixe dinner, KUA offered a unique add-on beyond the standard drink pairing upcharge: insects. I am not squeamish, nor do I find any barbarism in bug-eating, so I went all-in on this pre-Columbian, protein-rich addition.
My dining partner and I intentionally arrived early for our seating to park at the bar for a pre-meal drink, where we were presented with a stark-white drink menu emblazoned with local Mexican-American artist Luis Fitch’s distinctive skulls. I opened it and gasped as I was greeted with a brightly colored image from my childhood: a lotería board. Lotería is a game I oversimply to friends as “Mexican picture bingo.” In this case if you’re yelling “lotería!” it’s because you’ve completed a row of drinks, probably going from bingo to blackout real quick.
From delicious, fresh non-alcoholic aguas frescas to rotating margaritas and boozy slushies similar to shaved ice stands on Mexican street corners, there’s bound to be a new favorite on this drink menu for all. I zeroed in on La Maceta (flower pot), a margarita featuring marigold-infused tequila and tamarind. I was charmed to have a small earthenware mug placed in front of me, seemingly filled with fresh marigold tops, a straw being the only clue that such a lovely presentation hid a tangy, boozy cocktail.
Shortly before we were called away from the bar to take a seat in “The Cabana” (aka the rain shelter, or in our case, the post-rain-leaky-patio-roof shelter), we saw one hell of a deal being advertised on the bar menu: $20 for five tacos and a slushy booze or non-alcoholic drink of your choice… We vowed to return and investigate this slammin’ deal for a cheap date night in the near future, as well as the rest of the bar menu.
After taking seats in booths of the cozy cabana under hanging tapestries bearing even more jaunty Luis Fitch dancing skeletons, it was time to eat. At each of our place settings were a trio of salsa bottles featuring serrano-infused vinegar—one zingy green and cilantro-laden, the other sweeter and full of heat from habaneros. They did not mellow out the heat for a Minnesota palate, for which I’m forever grateful. We were instructed by our chef-guide to taste and to play with these throughout dinner, which threw me for a loop as it goes against my usual “fancy dinner” eating habits of scarfing whatever the chef puts in front of me, as-is. Truly these plates were well-seasoned to begin with, but this proved to be a rewarding experiment the minute the serrano vinegar’s acid came to rest in the crevices of a crispy puffed pig skin.
Adjacent to these pork chicarrónes was a small bowl of what was perhaps my favorite dish of the evening—swordfish ceviche. Because we added the insects, large honey ants were artfully placed around dense cubes of swordfish mixed with jalapeno, onion, and pecans. After my first bite with the sweet and crunchy ants, I sincerely felt bad for the diners around us who passed on the insects, because although the dish was garnished with crispy rice paper, it paled in comparison to the ants as an incredible textural element.
Other home runs on this menu were the stuffed Anaheim peppers. Funky and fungal, there was a one-two punch of mushrooms and huitlacoche (corn smut) incorporated into this earthy green dish. The escabeche, or spicy pickled veggies, added a crunchy kick of heat with a vinegary bite to an otherwise soft dish. Red maguey worms (usually found in cheap bottles of tequila) had been dessicated and sprinkled on top, adding a wonderful nutty flavor. Accompanying it all were the most delicious, silky, and porky refried beans I’ve ever tasted.
Later, a steamy cart presented us with tiny tamales, one wrapped in corn husk another in banana leaf. Lovingly tucked inside were fillings of corn masa mingling with shredded, spiced chicken tinga, and the other vegetal and mild with poblano pepper and Oaxaca cheese.
The build-your-own taco platter arrived on a wooden plank and was gorgeous. It featured a traditional, pleasingly bitter and smoky mole lamb, though the cut of meat turned out a little dry. The accompanying chopped and grilled flank steak made up for it, as did the garnishes of a simple, fresh guacamole and seared pineapple that allowed for texture and flavor mixing.
Admittedly, the tacos highlights were the thick and fragrant daily-made corn tortillas and the bugs—large toasted cocopaches (beetles) with dark and gleaming carapaces, and what turned out to be my favorite insect of the night, the delightfully salty and crispy chapulines (grasshoppers). These were like the popcorn of the insect menu, and I was heartbroken when I cleared the platter of them. They were worth every little leg left stuck in my teeth.
However good the flavors were on all of the dishes, one of them baffled us. The green mole and halibut left us wondering why all of the greens were added to an otherwise perfectly cooked fish. It was succulent and wrapped in aromatic hoja santa leaves that held its own flavor-wise without the mole, while all of the added veggies obscured its perfection. Sometimes, less really is more.
To wrap up the meal, we were presented with dessert on a gleaming white platter. The delicate and unassuming cup of passionfruit curd was bright and mouthwatering. Fresh fried churros paired with a chocolate sauce for dipping kept it traditional, while a horchata ice helped keep each fried and sticky bite light. The best, however, was a chocolate-stuffed chile. It didn’t look like much on the outside, but cutting into the deep red skin revealed a wonderfully moist, mealy interior filled with chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, and dehydrated cake that when lifted to the lips provided a rich and satisfying finish to a wonderful meal.
Unlike the previous two pop-ups in this space, the final tasting left both of us full but not filled to the gills and nearly in pain, and with chef Romero’s help the goal was expertly executed. As with the last Travail pop-up, “Homage,” where the chefs presented dinner did their due diligence to tell the back-stories of the dishes from eras past, the explanations of food served at KUA added another layer of education that clearly comes from a reverence for the food culture of Mexico.
With this tasting menu, Travail is proving you don’t need* a passport to explore the flavors of our neighbors to the south, and my oh my is it worth the trip.
Runs through September 14
1930 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
*owning a passport still recommended