2750 Nicollet Ave., Mpls.; (612) 871-5200
Hours: 10:00 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 10:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Lately I've taken to crafting Majorcan emeralds into those three-pronged Czech-style nose-warmers that are all the rage in Paris. I was modestly modeling my creations at one of those terribly fashionable parties with the electric eels and the mud dinette sets and all, when, suddenly, the very chicest people I know turned to me, threw down their designer earplugs, and cried as one: My God, woman, can't you recommend a decent Mexican restaurant?
So I launched into a merry tale of El Mariachi, the sort of lively wingding where festive blankets festoon the walls, tots waddle in the aisles, televisions blare Spanish-language talk shows, cervezas decorate the tabletops, and the waitresses flit through the carnival seemingly oblivious to the massive trays they carry--trays as heavy as a smallish restaurant critic in a Majorcan nose-warmer.
Primary among Mariachi's charms are the meats. The greasy and delectable carne asada ($11.95) is a ten-inch stretch of steak marinated in lime juice, basted with fat, and grilled to a crispy char that's salty, smoky, limey, and ravishingly good--the best of bacon and steak, united in one heavenly slab of beast. Close runners-up are the puerco en salsa verde (chunks of pork cooked in a bright tomatillo sauce with potatoes to make a sassy little stew, $7.50) and the barbacoa de res ($7.50), a piece of brisket grilled until it falls apart at the touch of your fork and served with pickled jalapeños and onions. It's like a gringo pot roast gone wry--tender, feisty, and caustic.
These dishes, like nearly everything else at El Mariachi, are served on big platters ringed round with goodies: Creamy beans dusted with tangy grated cheese; a yellow rice that is slightly sweet in the way Thanksgiving stuffing is sweet; lettuce, tomatoes, a dollop of sour cream, a tablespoon of fresh guacamole. And, of course, each of Mariachi's laminate tables usually holds a steaming container of corn tortillas.
As you might guess, there ends up being very little room on those tables. Each diner is greeted with a basket of chips and two ramekins of salsa, a smoked chile-and-tomato version with a hint of fire and a zingy tomatillo-cilantro-onion mixture. Sometimes the kitchen also doles out complimentary cups of vegetable soup, a lime-touched broth with carrots, tomatillos, and potatoes. Set down some platters, some tortillas, an extra taco or two for pure gluttonous pleasure, and you have not just a crowded table, but a gorging banquet at less than $8 per person.
If I were gripped by a particularly nasty strain of the glass-half-empty virus, I might say that that was all for the better, because in sampling widely from the appetizer menu of quesadillas, gorditas, sopes, tostadas, and such, I couldn't find a selection tasty enough or different enough from the rest of the offerings to justify adding a starter to the meal.
But does that sound like something I would say? No, it doesn't. Instead, I'd offer that there are two decent appetizers: The tamales ($1.75), a dense, mellow version of the steamed cornmeal loaves formed around a smoky pork center, and the taquitos de papa ($4.85), corn tortillas rolled around a mild potato filling that come with all the trimmings of an entrée and would make a fine, if smallish, vegetarian meal.
Vegetarians should take note of that, because with the exception of the taquito and three fairly uninspired meat-free entrées, Mariachi's menu leaves them to cry into their beers. (At least they're good beers: For a smallish, inexpensive spot, El Mariachi offers a stunning eight imports--Negra Modelo, Pacifica, Dos Equis, Corona, and more--each priced at $3, plus a few domestics at $2.50.)
While the vegetarians fritter away their afternoons whimpering, carnivores can gnaw on more, more, more! hot meat. Like the nine fillings for the excellent tacos ($2 each, $7.50 for three with the de rigueur accompaniments). Tacos here have soft flour tortillas on the bottom, plenty of fresh chopped onions and cilantro on top, and a middle of your choosing: pork al pastor (marinated and grilled), carnitas (cooked, shredded pork cooked in pork fat, like a confit), chorizo (a spicy, vibrant orange version of the casing-free sausage meat), cecina (brined, thin-sliced steak, my least favorite), lengua (soft beef tongue, $2.25 each), barbacoa (that pot roast-style grilled beef), carne asada (a minced version of that steak I so recommend), chicharrón en salsa (stewed pork rinds), and a very plain pollo (chicken).
If you're going to count all the variations on those meats--cecina in a taco, cecina in a burrito, cecina on a tostada, cecina in a torta, cecina going it alone with nothing but rice and beans to cushion it from cruel fate--El Mariachi easily offers 100 different dishes. Among them, not surprisingly, I found some duds: The sauce in the chicken mole ($7.50) is acrid and bitter. The burritos, ($4.75 on their own, or $6.45 on a plate with rice, beans, etc.) are way too bland and rice-filled for my taste.
Desserts could use some work, too: The pastel de tres leches ($2), a cake I normally love, is way too sugary; flan ($2) is fine, but not special. Both desserts are made off-site and served ice-cold from the beer refrigerator. A far better option to satisfy a sweet tooth is to order a milk-shake-like licuado, available in a variety of flavors. I particularly like to contemplate the world over the creamy top of a banana licuado ($2.50). Until my nose-warmer falls off and lands at the bottom of the glass and I'm reduced once again to sucking banana pulp from the emeralds.
À LA RECHERCHE DU ROAST BEEF: Bret Hazlett had plunged deep into a remembrance of Arby's past. "Arby's was good, really, really good--in the Seventies. We serve roast beef like they used to. Exactly like Arby's used to." Sensing that Tablehopping was about to fake a call-waiting interruption, Hazlett became more strident. "It was good! Really. Don't you remember?" Ahem, no. But here at Tablehopping our motto is to each his own Proustian madeleine, and so we packed up and drove to a section of strip mall in the northeast quad of the Lexington/Larpenteur intersection. This is the site of Bart and Bret Hazlett's new fast-food restaurant, a bright, spic-and-span place where they serve, well, you know what. If all goes well, the Hazletts plan to turn Maverick's into a chain.
But don't laugh at those Hazletts, they've proved prescient before: Bart founded Panini Catering, which produces those ubiquitous coffee-shop sandwiches, and there are Hazletts in charge of the Warehouse District café Montana and the Bryn Mawr Coffee Shop. And if this is beginning to sound like some kind of Western posse, that's no coincidence: Twins Bret and Bart were named after the cowboy twins from the TV show.
So does the beef come from the ol' Hazlett ranch? Um, no, but that sandwich, a bargain at $2.29, is pretty durn good. Not Texas-sized, but definitely Oklahoma-big, it holds a pile of warm, fresh beef carved from a thoroughly honest-looking roast perched behind the counter. Maverick's also offers sandwiches of long-cooked brisket, touched with either garlic or barbecue sauce and cushioned by sweet, tender Blackey's Bakery kaiser rolls.
The buns are particularly commendable for holding their own against Maverick's zippy horseradish sauce or cinnamon-laced barbecue sauce. (Clap, clap, bravo, buns!) Complement your sandwich with a great coleslaw (all crisp, sweet and zingy, 65 cents), and close with a rich, smooth mocha pudding ($1.05). My only recommendation would be to swap those frozen fries, onion rings, and potato cakes for the real thing posthaste--just swing by the Wienery on the West Bank or Paw's Dogs at 494 and France to see how easy it is.
But the question remains: Why did mom go along with the Maverick twins thing? "She had too many kids to complain about names, I guess," Bret Hazlett says laconically, and I can just hear the swallowed aw-shucks. Maverick's hours are 10:30 a.m.-8:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 1746 N. Lexington, Roseville; (651) 488-1788.
SPEAKING OF PROUST: My heart bleeds for "Beth in Ithaca," who is quoted in the latest brochure from Turtle Island Foods as praising Tofurky for evoking "the meat flavors of my youth." Honey, that was one ersatz childhood you got snookered with--what bum deal did you get for fruit and vegetable flavors, an old sock to suck on?
For those of you who've never encountered a Tofurky (www.tofurky.com), imagine a large loaf of a "revolutionary tofu-wheat protein blend," embossed with a brown tofu skin, filled with a stuffinglike wild-rice blend, and accompanied by four something-like-cutouts made from tempeh, wild rice, textured soy protein and cranberries. Oh, and of course--new this year!--the two "WishStixs," fashioned from Tofurky Jerky.
Now, far be it from me to make fun of vegetarians who are saving the world for sorry gluttons like me. But why would you bother with this ghost of a parody of a memory when Mother Nature has so beneficently supplied us with magnificent, centerpiece-ready vegetarian options like pastry, potatoes, pumpkins, and squash? Oh, well. I'm only grateful for the inspiration all this has provided for me: Watch for my new line of meat-free critters, including Tofugoose--shove soybeans down its tofuthroat and you'll get tofoie gras! And Tofucow--with a squeezable pouch of soy milk, and a tofumignon at the rear. With my profits, I promise to leave this feckless lifestyle behind and dedicate myself to releasing tofeagles and snowy tofowls into the wild.
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