Heat Treatments Par Excellence

El Cafe

El Burrito Mercado

175 Concord St., St. Paul; 227-2192

I live in a world without air-conditioning for a lot of reasons: because I'm sort of morally against it (because it's energy-inefficient and environment-alienating), because I'm sort of cheap, and because I'm easily distracted by delusions I construct for myself. For instance, one summer I decided that if I spent my days drinking coffee in bars I would metamorphosize into an astonishingly productive writer with an enigmatic lifestyle that would titillate the world press. Instead, I learned what alcoholics do with their days, and how very bad they are at finishing their stories. Another summer I thought I would just spend all my time in the country--and it wasn't until mid-August that I realized that I had missed every neighborhood summer festival I love, that I was transporting my vulnerable flesh right into the mosquitoes' home-field advantage, and that the marriage of tents and humidity is truly grotesque. This year I've decided that if I can't beat it I can become it--I'm filling myself with chiles, and it seems to be the best plan yet.

First I thought I'd stop reading Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen, which I do compulsively, and start cooking from it. This decision led me to El Burrito Mercado, where I found the fresh masa to make tamales ($3.95 for five heavy pounds of the ground-corn mixture), corn husks to wrap them in, whole achiote seeds, all the chiles I need (dried ancho, chipotle, guajillo, and pasilla; fresh jalapeño, habanero, poblano, and serrano), chorizo sausage, mortars and pestles for authentic grinding, big earthenware bean pots, and all sorts of things to keep me busy--and even some things to annoy my friends with, like big bags of jalapeño-flavored lollipops ($3.99).

Weakened from all my shopping, I decided to fortify myself with a burrito ($4.25) and a big glass of fresh-made papaya drink (85 cents) from the humble cafeteria-style counter of El Cafe, off to one side of El Mercado. At El Cafe you can choose to have your burrito or taco or what-have-you filled with your choice of about a dozen guisados (stew-like dishes), instead of the ordinary Tex-Mex options of chicken, beef, or other beast, and I just happened to pick a beef in colorado sauce, which is a rich red mole, and it was a revelation. Smoky, spicy, silky, deep--not the slightly bitter, slightly sweet stuff you usually get in inexpensive restaurants. I was so delighted I came back the next day and tried the two-taco platter ($5.25), which I had with a very hot, very tender chicken-and-chili mash called pollo a la diabla, and a pork guisado in a green tomatillo-based sauce which was tart, almost citrusy. On my third visit I tried the tremendously popular carnitas--golden, deep-fried pork hacked into lengthy pieces, which tastes something like pot roast. I also discovered El Cafe's wonderful gorditas--plump tortillas that are sweet, tender, plain, and handmade daily. Tamales, which are a real pain to make (and I should know because I have a five-pound bag of masa in my refrigerator and an absolute lack of commitment to the project), are also very good here: They're tender, fluffy, and nicely filled with a slightly spicy, slightly sweet pork, chili, and tomato guisado. (Tamales are $5.50 for three with rice and beans.) I soon found that there was very little I didn't like at this down-to-earth eatery, from the simple salsas offered at the counter--both a tomatillo and a simple tomato salsa are there daily--to the unslimy cactus dishes and torta sandwiches. Sometimes you can even see a new guisado started by the folks behind the counter--bunches of bright veggies sizzle away in big squat pots.

The recipes are all reputed to be the handiwork of Maria Silva, who ran a grocery store across the street for 20 years before she and her husband Tomas moved into their current big, open space four years ago. In addition to the grocery and cafe, El Burrito Mercado has a deli counter featuring many of their guisados to go, ready-made burritos (starting at $1.99 each), and homemade salsas (generally around $3 a pound). There's also a gift area with dolls, Christmas ornaments, and piñatas, and a bakery featuring cookies and pastries. (I like the pumpkin empanadas (69 cents) best; they've got a rich cinnamon-and-spice-laced filling, and have a strength and character that the sweeter pastries lack.) The plain coffee at the cafe is weak, but the cappuccinos made to order are quite good.

In fact, a cappuccino and a pumpkin empanada is a fine way to enliven an afternoon spent dodging rays from the earth's great life-giving star. I know this, my friends, because El Cafe figures into my strategy on how to beat the heat this summer. It opens for egg-chorizo scrambles and just-baked gorditas at 9 a.m., just as the sun starts to flex its muscle, and doesn't close again until 7 p.m. (6 p.m. on Sundays), when the sun has moved on to torment Hawaiians. While I may be getting rapidly out of bathing-suit shape from the tasty, desperately unhealthy carnitas, I've found a hideaway where there's a rainbow of chiles, an ever-changing menu, a bounty of fruity drinks, and the satisfying, gratifying, charming chill of air-conditioning.


HOT STOVE LEAGUE: Here's one of the recipes that started me on this journey, from Rick Bayless's aforementioned Mexican Kitchen, a really great, though potentially life-sidetracking, cookbook. This is a good chip-and-dip salsa, but also works well as a marinade for strong flavored fish, like bluefish or catfish.

Essential Roasted Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa

Salsa de Chile Chipotle y Tomate Verde

* 3-6 dried chiles chipotles colorados

[stems removed]

* 3 large garlic cloves, unpeeled

* 8 oz. (5-6 medium) tomatillos, husked

and rinsed

* Salt, about 1/2 tsp.

* Sugar, about 1/4 tsp.

1) Toasting and roasting the main ingredients. Set an ungreased griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat.... Toast the chiles a few at a time: Lay them on the hot surface, press flat with a metal spatula (they'll crackle faintly and release their smoky aroma), then flip and press down to toast the other side. Transfer the toasted chiles to a bowl, cover with hot water and let rehydrate for 30 minutes, stirring regularly to ensure even soaking. Pour off all the water and discard... [on the hot skillet over medium heat] roast the unpeeled garlic, turning occasionally, until blackened in spots and soft, about 15 minutes. Cool, slip off the papery skins, and roughly chop. Lay the tomatillos on a baking sheet and place about four inches below a very hot broiler. When the tomatillos blister, blacken, and soften on one side, about 5 minutes, turn them over and roast the other side. Cool completely on the baking sheet.

2) The salsa. Scrape the tomatillos (and any juices that have accumulated around them) into a food processor or blender and add the rehydrated chiles and garlic. Pulse the machine until everything is thick and relatively smooth.... Transfer to a serving bowl and stir in enough water, usually 3-4 tablespoons, to give the salsa a spoonable consistency. Taste and season with salt, plus a little sugar to soften the tangy edge.

Makes about 11/4 cups.

IT'S NOT THE HEAT: You think you're so tough spicing up your jarred tomato sauce with cayenne or chili pepper. Big deal. Bet you're not tough enough for Todd Lehman's "Über-Garlic Pickle," distributed via his website.

Previous tasters have posted responses to his creation, such as: "Like someone yanked out my tongue and cut it off with a pair of rusty scissors. Very nice," and "You've got taste buds all the way down your esophagus and into your stomach that you've never stimulated until you've tried one of these pickles." Go on. Try it. Todd dares you.

The Fibblesnork Über-Garlic Pickle

* 1 (one) 32-oz. jar Claussen® half-spears; do not use any other brand unless they are uncooked and refrigerated.

* 2-3 habanero peppers, sliced

* 4-5 serrano peppers, sliced

* 2-3 jalapeño peppers, sliced

* 24 cloves garlic, pressed or finely chopped

(that's not 2-4, as in 2 to 4, that's twenty-four cloves--a whole head of garlic)

* 1 tbsp. crushed red-pepper flakes

Drain and discard 1 oz. pickle water from jar. Remove pickles from jar, cut into 3/4-inch slices, and return pickles to jar. Add garlic and peppers to jar. Cover jar (close lid tightly) and shake vigorously for two minutes. Refrigerate. Scrub hands thoroughly. Shake for five seconds every 24 hours. Taste becomes fuller with each passing day.

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