When you consider the high concentration of bars in Uptown and the tendency for people to be out late and on foot, there's an alarming lack of tacos in that neighborhood. Or there was until very recently, when World Street Kitchen debuted their lamb belly and jerk beef fusion ones and Nico's Tacos moved into the former Birdhouse space on Hennepin.
Now Lago Tacos, a mid-range Mexican restaurant with a store in Excelsior, has opened in the former Heidi's space on Lyndale. Is it in any way significant that both of Stewart Woodman's shuttered restaurants became taco spots? Probably just a coincidence. But it certainly seems that the slightly upscale taqueria concept is just what the neighborhood was hungry for. We stopped by this weekend to get a first taste and check out the overhaul of the patio and interior.
Instead of the fast-casual model that's worked so well for national chains like Chipotle and local outfits like Rusty Taco, Lago's operation leans a little more toward nearby neighbor Nico's Tacos in terms of its sit-down service and fully stocked bar. Basically if the scale goes from Los Ocampos (delicious, authentic food, not a lot of atmosphere, extremely reasonable prices) to Masa or Rosa Mexicano (obvious emphasis on setting, some tasty but totally fancified food items, always costs a lot more than you'd expect for rice, beans, tortillas, and a margarita), then Lago is smack in the middle.
They've re-done the inside to high spec, leaving behind the beautifully worn-in wood floors and keeping the spacious, flowing feel to the dining room that its former tenant had. They've also kept the handy, pergola-covered side patio where we suspect they'll be serving many a margarita. Lago's tequila selection doesn't quite rival, say Bar Abilene's or Barrio's, but the three tiers of selections (Cuervo up to Cabo Wabo) should satisfy the average drinker.
Lago started weekend breakfast service right off the bat. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday you can order Tex-Mex brunch-y dishes like chilaquiles with salsa verde, skirt steak Huevos Rancheros served with crispy cheese-filled flautas, and egg and chorizo tostadas. We ended up at Lago right on the meal-time cusp and decided to sample the stuff Lago seems to be pushing most as their specialty: street-style tacos and monster burritos.
From what we could gather off the menu, Lago's definition of "street style" simply means a mix of more traditional filling options like the carnitas taco, which was flavorful if a little dry, topped with avocado, onion, cilantro, and queso fresco, and ones that borrow from other traditions like the sesame chicken or BLT tacos. We were actually surprised by the BLT one, which was stuffed with chunks of crispy, caramelized pork belly instead of bacon with a piquant and vaguely smoky poblano chile sauce.
The grilled mahi mahi taco with caper-dill sauce and a little sweet pineapple salsa was also a nice light departure from the deep-fried fish tacos we've become more familiar with in the Midwest. Lago definitely nods to that brand too, with a beer-battered walleye version. Doubled-up corn tortillas are the standard, which you usually need to contain all the salsa and meaty juices in an actual street taco. Here, the tortillas kind of took over. We ended up forking out the filling and leaving a good amount of extraneous tortilla behind.
We can attest that the burritos were sizable, but rolled much too loosely to contain everything. Most of the more traditional filling combos that are available in taco form are also available as burritos and come with a choice of refried beans, Spanish rice, or lightly griddled masa corn cakes. The beans were the best option by far, but it's always disappointing to see beans and rice split up. They belong together. (To be fair, they are together in most of the burritos.)
The overall verdict was that we would definitely be back to find our favorite taco on the menu (maybe on a single tortilla?), give breakfast a try, and hang on the lovely patio. You'll pay more than you would at a taco truck or one of the many places on Lake Street, but service was eager, efficient, and friendly, and the happy hour looks totally decent: From 3 to 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close every day they have $5 margaritas and appetizers and $1 off tap beers.