King of the Grill

Luis Perez enjoys a seafood parillada while listening to Mariachi Estrella
Sean Smuda
El Rey De Oro
3501 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis

Things that grow fast:

  • Sunflowers in spring.
  • The love of a child for a chocolate Easter bunny.
  • The bust-to-waist ratio of newly minted starlets.

Things that grow frighteningly fast:

  • Fears about the guy sleeping in the driveway.
  • Concerns about Harry Potter's ability to save the world.
  • Suspicions that the restraining order against Jimbo wasn't, in fact, an administrative error.

Things that grow faster than humans can understand:

  • The weight and mobility of the things within Farrah Fawcett's face.
  • The collective delusion of today's low-carb pudding consumers.
  • The Mexican food scene in the Twin Cities.

I know you read me for the jokes, but really! Can you believe how good the Mexican food in the Twin Cities is getting? It's truly a modern miracle.

I am not even kidding. For instance, did you know that eight months ago, there were no Mexican parrilladas on the corner of 35th and Nicollet worth driving all the way across the state for, and now, boy howdy are there!

What the heck is a Mexican parrillada?

First, first it's a kind of cross between a mixed grill and a rice-free paella. Imagine, if you will, all kinds of seafood sautéed with all kinds of vegetables until a rich, concentrated, stewy sort of concoction is brought into being. Let your imagination hold on to that for a moment. Now, conjure up a vision of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mixed grill, with a tamale, seared chicken wings, a crackling-crisp pork chop, enormous bright red crab legs, and slices of super-thin, cross-cut, bone-in grilled rib steak (tira de asado) that taste like some heaven-sent cross between bacon and beef jerky.

Now, if you will--if you can--imagine all of these things piled up together into a single tray, the tray perched on top of a handmade, tabletop sort of Sterno-fueled chafing dish, so that you've got this tower of: everything. Simply everything. Scallops, green-lip mussels, shrimp, octopus, fake crab legs, real crab legs, onions, peppers, chicken, a pork chop, a tamale, half a dozen strips of tira de asado, a whole bunch of grilled scallions, and a scattering of split, charred, hot and roasty jalapeños.

So that's what it is first of all. Second of all, what a parrillada is is an utter miracle, and a blessing on all our houses. It arrives at the table with so much visual ooh and aah that you feel like some kind of big-rolling lottery winner. And then it's homey and earthy with the long-stewed seafood and vegetables, it's crisp and rich with the meats, it's filling as all get out, and it comes with a basket of warm tortillas and a platter of rice and beans. You say parrillada, I say, Hooray! Set a couple of beers and a glass of the restaurant's vanilla-rich horchata on the table and it is a celebration of both bounty and taste. (This gargantuan enormity costs $37.99--or $36.99 for an all-meat or all-seafood version. The menu says it serves two or three people, but I'd say it feeds four, handily.) Seat a party of 10 at the big table that stretches across the back of the room and throw three or four parrilladas on the table, and finally south Minneapolis gets a birthday party restaurant with the prices and food you want. (The staff is a little English-lite though, so if someone in your party has Spanish-language skills you may have an easier time negotiating the experience.)

Really, after some deep soul-searching the only problem I can come up with is this: If you want one on a weekend afternoon, good luck--the place gets thronged, absolutely thronged, with customers on weekend afternoons. Little kids play hopscotch on the floor tiles, babies swat at the fish in the aquarium in the entranceway, and all kinds of folks swarm about hoping for a taste of the old country.

Because of the crowds, the restaurant itself usually looks like it was rode hard and put away wet. And it's not much to start with, just mirrors, some colorful painting, and televisions that usually compete with piped-in mariachi music in a kind of cacophony Olympics. In the summer, though, there will be a big outdoor patio.

(Speaking of which--summer. What do you think? I'm calling an early hot one. Partly because of all of the buds I'm seeing in the garden, and partly because--doesn't that seem dreamy? Summer!)

Ahem. But until then, you know what's kind of summery? The inside of the al pastor burrito; indeed, the other great thing at El Rey de Oro are the pork-based burritos. The al pastor one is a chile-laced barbecued pork, rich and dark as an August sunset seen through fire coming off the grill. It tastes deep, chocolatey, and rich. The carnitas--as either a burrito or alone--are fantastic; they really understand how to make carnitas as crisp as fried chicken skin here, while leaving the meaty chunks as soft as cake. The burritos here are just huge, in every dimension: Hugely flavorful, hugely weighty, hugely crying out to make your night in front of the TV one to remember. The fact that the rice is bursting with flavor, tomato-rich and full, is what pushes them over the edge, I think. Plain ones cost $6.99, "combo" ones, with tomato and sour cream, $7.99.

The tamales ($1.50) are my last pick for really extraordinary things at El Ray. It's not just the pork filling that does it--though it is smoky, permeated by chiles, and rich as dessert--but more the surrounding cornmeal batter, which has an especially coarse ground, rendering the tamales unusually chewy, rustic, and charming. And boy oh boy, once that tamale sucks in some of the sauce from the parrillada, there isn't a better bite of food anywhere.

I tried a dozen other things on the menu, but never found anything as spectacular as the parrillada, the tamales, or the dishes that showcase the al pastor or carnitas. The restaurant has about a million seafood dishes, but I never found the perfect one. They serve six varieties of cold tomato-based seafood cocktail: I liked best the shrimp one ($8.99), in which lemony shrimp swam in a brisk citrus-tinged tomato juice. Ensalada de pulpo enamorado bears mention simply because it is such a loony Lutheran Church Basement Mexican dish.

No, really: Order it and you get a whole oval platter heaped up with a white salad of cold octopus, cut into cubes, tossed with little shrimps, cubes of avocado, onions, tomatoes, a tiny bit of jalapeño, lots of cilantro, and about a gallon of mayonnaise. It tastes nothing but chill, light, mayonnaisy, and is about as friendly as a DFLer first thing in the morning at the milk booth, if you know what I mean. It's one of those dishes that's just crying out for some mandarin chicken salad and a scoop of ambrosia, held in one hand on a paper plate while you fiddle with the coffee urn with the other.

Yes, I said it's Lutheran Church Basement Mexican. I know that you think that Lutheran Church Basement Mexican starts with guacamole made with green food coloring, sour cream, and garlic powder, and ends with seven-layer bean dip--but no. I am declaring those days over. From this point forward it's going to be all about octopus.

Hey, you already know how a swelling ocean raises all boats? Well, so it goes for cities. A fast-growing restaurant scene raises all plates.

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