Sometimes it's nice to see cheap eats get gussied up, with street foods such as doubles or pad Thai being served in decorator-designed spaces and paired with fine wines. But other times—when you're tired, when you're broke, and when your hair is doing that weird humidity-frizz thing—you don't want to have to put your prom dress on to go out for tacos.
That's when you head to the new Las Teresitas, which is as comfortable as your living room. (In fact, one evening when I was dining there, a man appeared to be literally moving right into the restaurant, lugging in a laundry bag and a pair of stereo speakers and adding them to a pile of large plastic tubs, a rolled-up rug, and a child's shiny red tricycle. On subsequent visits, the possessions remained stacked up in the corner.) The place is so casual that diners eat off disposable Styrofoam plates with plastic utensils instead of real dishes.
If your host looks familiar, that's because he's Gaspar Perez, who came to Minnesota from Mexico via California and opened Taco Morelos in the mid-1990s. Back then, before branding enthusiasts renamed Nicollet Avenue Eat Street, there weren't very many authentic Mexican restaurants in Minneapolis. After building the Morelos business to four locations, Perez sold the restaurants about three years ago. But he missed the social aspect of restaurant work, and so, this spring, he opened Las Teresitas in honor of two important Teresas in his life, his mother and his daughter. This time, Perez is keeping his staff small and family-oriented—his cousin cooks and his wife waits tables.
Las Teresitas is in one of Minneapolis's most deeply residential areas, on 34th Avenue, just north of its juncture with Highway 62. This corridor, between Lake Nokomis and the VA Medical Center, is pretty much devoid of restaurants besides Di Noko's Pizzeria and Singapore. So Las Teresitas quickly caught the attention of the neighborhood's residents and workers. Perez says he's become familiar enough with the military personnel stationed across the freeway that he can get on the base without showing ID.
Las Teresitas is tucked between a gas station and a Laundromat, with its entryway marked by a large decorative fountain featuring two horn-blowing angels. In the main dining room, more stone angels peer down from the top of a cooler, reflecting Perez's other occupation as a gardener. A new color scheme helps banish memories of the building's many previous occupants, among them the quickly shuttered Combo House, SerenTori, and the Lee Family Café. The walls are now red, spring green, and lavender, and the booths are covered in a graphic-print upholstery that looks ripped from the fictional 1980s diner frequented by the characters of Saved by the Bell.
The restaurant's most distinguishing feature is the salsa bar in the center of the dining room. It's full of immaculately cut garnishes, including radishes and cucumbers, lime wedges, and house-pickled cauliflower, peppers, onions, and carrots. There are nine salsas, in various hues and heat levels, to show the sauce's wide array of flavor possibilities.
Which do you like best? Try 'em all—Perez encourages sampling. On the mild side, there's pico de gallo, the fresh, chunky dice of tomato, onion, and chiles, or a tart, tomatillo-cilantro puree. Want a primer on chiles? Just scoop. Jalapeños blended with roasted tomato are relatively mild. Roasted serranos with garlic are a little hotter, as is the kicky, slightly sweet chile de árbol. Tomato chipotle salsa captures the pepper's characteristic smokiness in a creamy-but-fiery blend. But be careful not to fill up on too many of the lime-spiked, house-made tortilla chips: The burritos here make the ones at Chipotle look like they're on a diet.
The tacos at Las Teresitas, though, are sized for snacking. They're made with petite, four-inch corn tortillas, and most are priced at just $1.50 a pop. The kitchen prepares the usual gringo-pleasing carnitas and carne asada but also offers the opportunity to savor every part of the animal. Beef lengua, or tongue, is mild, tender, and a little spongy. Cabeza, or meat from the cow's head, has an earthy flavor and a slightly tacky, collagen-rich texture. Few local Mexican restaurants serve suadero, a preparation of beef brisket cooked with guajillo peppers and avocado leaves that Perez likens to Mexican pastrami. (It's rather salty and a little dry, so you might consider dousing it in salsa.)
The tilapia fish tacos are a little pricier, at $4.50 an order, but they come topped with pico de gallo and a generous scoop of guacamole. But nothing is outright expensive at Las Teresitas—a large order of guacamole will set you back only $3.50. The menu's affordability has been a big draw for many customers, though a sign the restaurant used to advertise a $5 burrito special may have scared away a few potential diners who believed it's impossible to find fresh ingredients and scratch cooking at Taco Bell prices.
Perez says he created the Teresitas menu based on the dishes that sold best at Taco Morelos, so the list includes many Mexican standards. From the fajitas served "Teresa style" with chicken, chorizo, and beef, to the not-too-greasy chile relleno, flavors are lively and rich. Enchiladas topped with house-made mole, complex and rich with chocolate and nuts, reveal the virtues of such labor-intensive cooking. Perez says the mole's secret is a lengthy ingredient list that includes everything from onion to banana.
Las Teresitas doesn't have a liquor license, but you won't miss the Coronas if you order the cinnamon rice milk horchata or the sweet pink agua de flor de Jamaica. (The latter is made from hibiscus flowers and tastes rather like the scent of a Barbie doll). To complete your meal, Las Teresitas offers a simple but lovely flan. The dessert tastes just as good as it did back in Taco Morelos's early days, its sweetness offset by a hint of bitterness from caramel bleeding into light, silky custard.