Me Gusta, No Me Gusta, Me Gusta...
1507 E. Lake St., Mpls.; 724-6007
433 S. Robert St., St. Paul; 227-3533
Quick! Evil twins--cheesy soap-opera plot device or potent symbol of humanity's internal conflict? I used to think there were no evil twins. Then I went to the Robert Street Me Gusta. Now a lot of things have slipped into place.
Like how I used to think I stuck my brother's single of Chumbawumba's "Tubthumping" behind the refrigerator because I hated it: Now I realize this was so out of character, it must have been my evil twin. I used to think I fed the neighbor's ever-barking pit bull some gas-inducing chipotle sausage because of my vicious nature; now I see I could never have done the deed. Because now I know that good people and restaurants really don't do evil things--it's just that the world is crawling with evil twins.
Don't buy it? Just wander in to the Robert Street Me Gusta. Where its twin on Lake Street is air-conditioned, bright, and cheery, this West Side location is dim, hot, and airless. Where the servers at Lake Street are efficient and friendly, the lonely dreamers at Robert Street mangle orders beyond recognition and bring them out only after hunger turns to exasperation. Why? Simply because such is the vexing nature of the evil twin. With all the attractions of the Lake Street Me Gusta--the festive murals, the cheerful decorations, the expert staff, the proximity to Do Me Nails--there's hardly a reason to go to Robert Street. But when you do, hoo boy, pack lunch.
True, the lone servers have too much to do, coping with about 20 customers each time I've visited. But even then, why bring frozen-solid beers to the table, open one so that it explodes, and then act hurt and confused when patrons don't want a bottle holding only a nub of frozen beer grime? And why bring out as a replacement another frozen beer? Why deliver only half of the dishes that were ordered, seemingly picking at random which ones? And presuming you have made people wait hours and hours for their food, why would you then tell them they couldn't order dessert because the kitchen was closed? Why?
Because you're a diabolical evil twin who sets out alluring plates of fresh, bright-green guacamole ($5.95 for a dinner-plate-sized portion, $3.95 for a salad-plate-sized amount) as bait while the chef goes to work. Here are some of his or her demonic tricks: sending out three successive baskets of mold-blooming tortillas. (One mold spot buried in a stack I can understand, but after the first two baskets came back, shouldn't he or she have started checking?) Serving mojarra a la diabla (silver bass simmered in a chile de árbol sauce, $12.95) as a freezer-burned, deep-fried puck with the consistency of sneaker soles. Sending out enchiladas in mole ($7.95) colder than the hot room and soggier than a poodle in a jacuzzi.
Other tricks include adding extra grease and the cunning lukewarm torture, whereby both hot and cold dishes are served at a temperature comfortable to the inside of the wrist, which just might be the best place for them. I could go into lots more detail here, but if there's one thing I've learned from a lifetime of watching horror movies, it's this: When the walls start to howl and the tables breathe fire it's time to pay the bill, leave a nice tip as a sacrificial distraction, and run, run, run.
Meanwhile, at the festive, organized, old reliable Me Gusta on Lake Street, everything is beer and skittles. Or rather, everything is burritos and salsa, as the giant $2.95 rolls of chicken or beef, refried beans, lettuce, tomato, and sour cream fly out the door with their usual speed and heat. The complimentary homemade salsa--deep and fiery, with the distinctive robust heat of roasted chiles--is served by cheery, responsible, responsive folk with smiles on their faces. The Ensalada Mexicana ($4.95), a gigantic portion of smoky grilled cactus, chopped lettuce, onions, and fresh cheese in a tasty oregano dressing is delicious; ditto the Sopa Azteca ($3.95), a tomato-based piquant broth garnished with tortilla strips, sour cream, chicken, avocado, and cheese. The Vuelve a la Vida ($10.95)--octopus, oysters, surimi (that processed crablike fish product), calamari rings, and shrimp, all cooked in lime juice to produce a light, tasty ceviche--makes a perfect summer supper. The silver bass a la diabla here is crosshatched, briefly fried, and served in a potent chili sauce that nicely complements the tender fish. The Mole Doña Irma ($8.50) has a nutty, smoky sauce on fork-tender chicken.
There are a few imperfect moments--I thought my chiles rellenos (peppers stuffed with cheese, breaded, and fried, $7.95) were greasy, and the red-snapper fillet, "Me Gusta" ($10.50), was overdone. But the complementing sauté of caramelized and not-quite-caramelized onions, dried chiles, and the herb epazote was so good I could forgive it. (Epazote looks like a leggy sorrel and tastes of rosemary, lemon rind, cilantro, and licorice. It's supposed to be carminative--gas-reducing--and is traditionally added to pots of beans. Recently I've seen it fresh at some local co-ops, such as the Wedge.) I also think the rice could use improving: It's a dull orange fluff, enhanced by the odd wrinkled pea or desiccated carrot bit.
But even when one of Me Gusta's 100-some dishes isn't all you'd wish, you have the sense you're in good hands. Just stay away from the evil twin.
CARNE? NO GRACIAS: Creative Mexican vegetarian cuisine is woefully underrepresented in these parts, but you can take matters into your own hands with a copy of Victoria Wise's The Vegetarian Table: Mexico (Chronicle Books, $22.95 hardcover). Wise was formerly the chef at Alice Waters's Chez Panisse, and she knows how to put together the flashy-but-easy recipes we backyard gourmets/praise junkies adore.
Braised Greens with Black Olives and Capers
* 2 pounds leafy greens such as Swiss chard, beet greens, spinach or young kale, mustard, or dandelion, tough stems removed
* 3 tablespoons olive oil
* 1 small onion, finely chopped
* 1 garlic clove, minced or pressed
* 1 poblano or 2 jalapeño chiles, stemmed and finely chopped
* 12 black olives, such as kalamatas, pitted and coarsely chopped
* 1/3 cup capers, drained
* Salt to taste
Cut the greens crosswise into half-inch strips and rinse in plenty of cold water. Drain. Heat the oil in a large, nonreactive pot. Add the onion, garlic, and chile and sauté until the onion wilts, about two minutes. Stir in the greens, olives, and capers. Cover and cook over medium heat until the greens are tender, eight to 10 minutes. Season with salt to taste. Serve right away, either plain or rolled up in warm tortillas. Serves four to six.
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