Some cooking screams "restaurant" from a mile away: tall garnishes, plate squiggles, octopus tentacles. And the accompanying dining rooms scream the same thing: music, art, flowers, hosts -- well, you get it. You've been to a restaurant.
And then there are some places that are wholly devoid of all of the above, and yet are still restaurants through and through, however much your constitution says: "You are at home now."
Homi on University Avenue is just such a place. Hortencia Reyes and her husband, Miguel, opened here seven years ago, naming Homi after an amalgam of their first names. They have four kids, at least one of whom will be waiting tables.
The only other restaurant trappings you'll find here will be some utilitarian furniture, a low-humming beverage case, and a counter at which to pay.
Non-restaurant trappings include a shrine to Jesus Christ, a low-humming television, and the cook coming out of the kitchen multiple times to check on your happiness.
The menu is a tome, and it boggles the mind how such a tiny space can keep inventory on hand for all of this: half a dozen soups and stews, at least as many varieties of tacos and tortas, many variations on enchiladas, chilaquiles, fajitas, moles. Then there are the traditional dishes you don't see everywhere: chicken in peppers and pumpkin seeds, eggs with cactus, tamales in banana leaf.
Homi is also a haven for vegans, with about a dozen vegan dishes clearly marked with a jaunty green "V."
If you're hungry, do yourself a favor and say yes to the guacamole and chips when offered. All the cooking is done from scratch, and you'll wait the way you wait when someone is cooking you something from scratch. Guacamole is also made to order, not scooped out of a tub, and it arrives with the avocado pit, as if to say, "Hey, someone just made me right this second." It's fresh and seasoned tight as a drum.
The wait proves well worth it when your order arrives similarly singing and fresh. Reyes is masterful at balance. Her levels of heat from chiles within the cooking have the nuance you'll never get from dousing your plate full of briny hot pepper sauce, and you'll marvel at the depths of flavor while never wishing for either more or less. In other words: You might not need the bombardment of hot sauce you usually use on your Mexican food. Taste before you ask for it.
Reyes hails from Veracruz, a coastal city with some Caribbean influence. So here, you'll find tamales served both in corn husk and banana leaf. The latter lends both a fragrance and moisture that renders the dish a delicacy. At Homi, the pork inside is a whole cut, enlivened with chiles in adobo, lipstick-red and inviting.
Do yourself yet another favor and turn to the "caldos" section, where soups simmered long and slow will warm you when it's cold and make you sweat when it's hot. Both equations are very, very good.
The spicy beef stew practically seals your lips with the collagen coaxed out of sturdy beef bones. A ruby float of chile and vegetables graces the top, including a little nub of sweet corn to pluck out and nibble.
Enchiladas are subtle, not bombarded with cheese. The tortillas are lightly fried until lacy and bubbling, and are more strewn with meat and cheese than stuffed, then blanketed in best-ever tomatillo sauce.
All of it arrives with sides of beans and rice and a container of warm tortillas.
"I don't use cans. I make everything fresh for my customers. You see the pit in the guacamole? Is it too spicy?" Reyes dotes like a mother hen, sweet and charming and smiling. Yes, we see the pit, no, it's not too spicy, yes, we taste the freshness.
She laments the light rail construction, saying business was much better before the project started, and since then, things have been hard. "Four kids," she reminds us.
So the next time you're hungry and near University and hankering for some home cooking, don't call your ma. Give Homi a shot. It doesn't look like much, but there are entire worlds within.
864 University Ave. W., St. Paul