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If you liked El Meson, you will love La Ceiba

La Cieba is infusing some much needed Caribbean color into the Minneapolis dining scene

La Cieba is infusing some much needed Caribbean color into the Minneapolis dining scene

One of the gaping holes in our local dining scene, along with the absence of a real-deal Jewish deli, is a dearth of good Puerto Rican and Cuban cuisine.

And if you're old enough to remember El Meson, you're old enough to miss it, and to know it as one of the first and only restaurants of its kind, serving enormous platters of arroz con pollo, paella, arroz con gandules, and other Spanish fusion cuisine that often tread Caribbean waters. So listen up long, lost forlorn El Meson lovers, La Cieba is just for you.

See also: Do You Miss El Meson? La Ceiba Is a Love Letter to You

During our visit no fewer than three diners wandered in wondering if this was the "new" El Meson, and the answer is: kinda. Chef Hector Ruiz of course owns three other restaurants, all of them along the Grand Avenue corridor: Rincon 38, La Fresca, and Cafe Ena, each with a subtly nuanced menu emphasizing a different part of Mexico or Latin America and showcasing favorite dishes and presentation styles to go with them.

But Ruiz says his customer base was always asking when he was going to bring back the El Meson signature, the one that put the Carribean, Cuba, and Puerto Rico as well as Spain front and center.

The intimate space is a riot of color with an open kitchen and is impossible not to like -- when that big, bad, old man winter comes crashing back into town (try not to think about it), a trip here will be welcome, warming salve.

The space is a riot of color

The space is a riot of color

Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the place has an ambitious menu, with more than 30 items at dinner, including old favorites like ceviche, fried plantains, and pernil; as well as dishes less familiar: carne frita con mofongo: (sautéed pork tenderloin with onions and red wine sauce, served with smashed plantains in a classic Puerto Rican sauce) or las tunas (Cuban picadillo, white rice, habichuelas rojas -- a type of bean -- fried egg, and avocado).

The latter is actually a breakfast dish, with Cuban picadillo being a fragrant, sofrito-based stew of ground beef, raisins, tomatoes, and green olives. Yet more interest comes in with gobs of spice-cabinet aroma: nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon. It's an intoxicating brew to have for breakfast to be sure, and would have been wonderful had it not been for the pair of woefully overcooked eggs that blanketed it. Fresh, chubby slivers of avocados saved the day, as they tend to do.

Much commotion has been made and many hearts have gone aflutter over the Cubano: a sandwich of ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard. And it is good, isn't it? But trust me on this one: What you'd rather be eating is a Medianoche. The two are cousins, but the latter is made superior with the addition of an almost maple-scented, eggy sweet bread, which is then pressed to a pleasing toast, melting the cheese and heating things within and offsetting the savoriness of the remainder. It's the best version of a Cuban sandwich I've had locally. And, if you wanna be like that, they serve a regular old Cubano too. Order them both and see if what I report is not gospel truth.

While the food was solid, they have only been open a few weeks and still seem to be working out some kinks -- a lone employee acted as both hostess and server for the entire dining room on a moderately busy lunch, and wait times were noticeably long.

Still, we're anxious to see what they're capable of when they gather their footing. This might be the most interesting Ruiz property yet, as it pays homage to parts of Latin America and the Caribbean that often get overlooked in our rich local landscape of fine Mexican cuisine, and the timing could not be better with all the current national interest in Cuba.

Ruiz's career is also impressively seasoned at this point, and he should be putting out some of his best cooking yet, as long as that unwieldy menu doesn't get the better of him.

Keep your eye on this one.

La Ceiba 3500 Bloomington Ave. S., Minneapolis 612-729-0523 laceibabistro.com

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