Taqueria la Hacienda
Mercado Central, 1515 E. Lake St., Mpls.; (612) 728-5424 Hours: Monday-Sunday 10:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m. (Sunday till 6:00 p.m.)
Mercado Central (see above); (612) 728-5408
Hours: 10:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m. daily
Otra Cocina Deli and Catering
Mercado Central (see above); (612) 728-5442
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 10:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday till 8:00 p.m.; Sunday 11:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.
Reyna de los Jugos
Mercado Central (see above) Hours: Monday, Thursday-Saturday 8:30 a.m.-8:00 p.m., Tuesday 8:30 a.m.-6:00 p.m., Wednesday 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m., Sunday 8:30 a.m.-5:00 pm
I've had it with your loved ones. All week I've been wearing myself to a nubbin, wondering, wondering: What do they want for the holidays? Are they hot for Furbies? Is it all about fruit-shaped chenille rugs? Did they really like that Dean Martin-shaped lampshade I gave them last year--or were they just being polite? All I can say now is, I give up, I don't care, let them eat cake. They're your headache.
But before I go, I'll give you one bit of advice: If you head to the southeast corner of Bloomington Avenue and East Lake Street, you might just accomplish much of your holiday shopping while treating yourself to the best Mexican food in Minneapolis.
Mercado Central is a complex (with off-street parking!) hosting about two dozen merchants who sell everything your loved ones might--for all I care--need. Baskets, blankets, Christmas ornaments, cowboy hats, salsa and merengue recordings, silver and gold jewelry, soapstone jewelry boxes, belt buckles, leather belts and bags, picture frames, candy, hot sauces, candelabra, candles, paper and straw flowers, and lots and lots more.
And when you too give up on your loved ones, salve your wounds, in the best American tradition, with lots and lots of tasty snacks. The very best food is to be had at Taqueria la Hacienda, a place I have such extreme enthusiasm for, I'm nearly hysterical--but I can't tell you about it yet. First I have to send you to Reyna de los Jugos, the juice-and-coffee bar in the northeasternmost spot of the mercado.
Options here include fresh-squeezed orange juice ($2.50), fresh carrot juice ($2.25), milk-based licuados ($2) or water-based aguas ($1.75) made with your choice of fresh mango, papaya, plantain, pineapple, cantaloupe, watermelon, or strawberry. If you're in a more wintry mood, there's the full gamut of coffees. Once you have acquired your beverage, I'll permit you to wander back to a modest booth situated just a few feet from the mercado's food-court-like eating area, a space furnished with nine tables that seat half a dozen people each at cane-backed chairs.
La Hacienda looks deceptively simple: All you see is a grill and a slowly rotating spit (topped with a pineapple), below which sits a pile of thin, sauced pork chops, sort of like a paper spike with a lot of memos on it. That beautiful spit is the home of al pastor, one of the four meat fillings you can have on your tacos ($1.50).
And what gorgeous little tacos they are. Perfectly seasoned meat is piled high on two cute little coaster-sized tortillas; on top of the meat is a mélange of carefully minced onions and cilantro, united with a squirt of red-chile-flecked salsa. They look like fancy restaurant food, these tacos--the geometric juxtaposition of two round, overlapping tortillas, the small cubes of meat, the even smaller cubes of onion, and the bright green cilantro. I can't think of anything as pretty except for dessert at Aquavit--but that costs four times as much, is customarily meat-free, and doesn't come on a (collectible?) Styrofoam plate.
Aside from the orange, sizzling, savory al pastor, taco options include a very nice chicken version--cut up white meat bright with red chili powder--carne asada (beef), and carnitas (roast pork). If you're there on a weekday, la Hacienda will also make you a burrito ($5.30) that is easily the best this side of Lexington Avenue, crammed with meat, rice, and creamy beans.
Just next door to la Hacienda is Manny's Tortas, a little spot worth noting because it makes these cities' best Cubano sandwich ($5.75)--a Cuban specialty featuring two kinds of pork, cheese, and pickled vegetables--along with an array of excellent tortas. For a torta, the busy counter-people split a six-inch swath of French bread and lay it on the grill. On another grill they lay the filling of your choice, a breaded beef cutlet (milanesa, $5.25), eggs and chorizo ($4.50), or ham ($4.50). When the bread is ready, they coat one side with refried beans, the other with the mashed pulp of half an avocado pitted and pressed on the spot. They add shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced onion, pickled jalapeño slices, cheese, and a very tasty squirt of chipotle mayonnaise--would your loved ones like a torta under their Christmas tree? I don't care. I told you, I wash my hands of them. But I will say that for the vegetarian on your list, Manny's makes an awfully good meatless torta ($4.50) that still tastes remarkably good. Any Tom, Dick, or Manny could hide behind rich, salty meats, but it takes a true torta artist to make one that's both sparse and worthy.
The third jewel at Mercado Central is Otra Cocina, another small counter where everything I tried was truly memorable--including, shockingly, the bean tostadas. I've never in all my days encountered a bean tostada worth eating, have never even understood the attraction to lettuce, cheese, and beans on a fried tortilla disk--until now. Owner Maria Capouch starts with a rich layer of black beans, adds a limey tomatillo salsa and some romaine lettuce, throws on some fresh, tangy cheese and a few slices of avocado--and voilà, it's a bright, delicious union of flavors and textures. (Three bean tostadas cost $3.50.)
While Otra Cocina isn't a vegetarian restaurant, it's the only Mexican place in town I can sincerely recommend to lacto-vegetarians, so all y'all take note. Capouch's tortilla soup ($3.50) is rich, sharp, loaded with strips of fried tortilla, cheese, and sour cream, and topped with a few slices of fresh avocado. And she makes the best Mexican dessert I've had in the Twin Cities, a two-layer contraption made with chocolate cake on the bottom and a sweet and buttery flan on top, all served with a dollop of tangy, delicious goat's-milk caramel--if you can figure out how to get this one in to your loved ones' stockings, well, bully for you.
Careful readers will notice that I've been flinging my hyperbole pretty freely here, best this, best that, best, best, best. But while some might hold that I've lost my critical faculties, I'd like to offer that no, I don't think so. Your loved ones can run around calling this the year of Lewinsky, of Jesse, of Littleton, or whatever they want, but to me 1999 will forever be the year when Minneapolis Mexican food came out of the Dark Ages. No more is this a city known only for chimichangas under a hogpile of sour cream; no more do Minneapolitans have to hang their heads in shame while St. Paul laughs and points. No, we can now have excellent Mexican food while multitasking--eating, sampling the salsa tunes that spill from the record stores, and eyeballing leather gifts. The stakes are officially raised, and it's about time.
MILLENNIUMSERVATIONS: What are you doing for New Year's? If you have no idea, fear not: Tablehopping has been working overtime on occasion of the City Pages Winter Issue, and it turns out that quite a few of our favorite restaurants still have tables available. At press time gorgeous, glamorous Goodfellow's had filled up two planned seatings in the main room but still had about 20 seats left for the $150-per-person New Year's Eve Wine Dinner. That dinner happens upstairs on the Goodfellow's balcony, starts with a 6:30 p.m. reception, and moves on through a four-course meal complete with an impressive run of wines.
But don't figure you can simply make reservations to hedge your bets until something better comes along: Like nearly every restaurant I called about New Year's Eve, Goodfellow's is only taking reservations with a credit card, and no-shows will be charged. As Auriga co-owner Scott Davis puts it, "We learned our lesson the hard way. The first New Year's we were open, we thought we were completely booked, but then only a few people showed up. Never again."
Auriga won't be doing a prix-fixe special, but will offer what Davis calls "an upgraded menu" with pricier options than the restaurant commonly offers (think $21 to $31) including lamb chops, jumbo sea scallops, and arctic char, plus a variety of vegetarian dishes. "What we're hearing from our Kenwood clientele is that they just want to stay at home, not travel. So we're serving our special New Year's menu both Thursday [December 30] and Friday. We're going to seat until 10:00 p.m. or so, and the bar will be open until 1:00 a.m. People can bring in their special champagne or wine and not worry about driving."
Driving isn't scaring off fans of Stillwater's La Belle Vie: Co-owner Josh Thoma glanced through his reservation book and noted that half of his millennium guests are from the 612 area code. "I don't know if they're hiring limousines, or what--we do have quite a few reservations for large parties, tables of 10 or 14, but we still have 12 open tables at the first seating, and a few after 9:30 for the second." La Belle Vie's first offering of the night, a six-course tasting menu, costs $85 and seats between 5:00 and 6:30 p.m.; the second, featuring eight courses, is $135, includes a champagne toast, and seats between 7:00 and 10:30 p.m.
Diners will be able to purchase bubbly off La Belle Vie's delicious champagne list, including vintage 1990 Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame for $120, and Billecarte nonvintage brut reserve, for $50. It will be an evening of la belle vie indeed, says Thoma: "[We] came up with the menu by sitting down and listing all of our favorite ingredients--caviar, foie gras, squab, all those things you don't see every day, but want to. It's the menu to beat all menus."
Interestingly, of all the restaurateurs I spoke to, only the folks at the Local had plans for coping should millennium night turn into the disaster of all disasters: "Our dining room will be entirely lit by candlelight, in honor of the turn of the century," says manager Jacquie Berglund. "That way, if all the electricity goes, we're fine." The Local plans to have a jazz quartet and dance floor in the dining room; the first seating is at 5:30 p.m. and features five courses at $75 per person. The second is available after 9:00 p.m., includes eight courses, and costs $125. Both meals are a comparative bargain when you consider that a full suite of wine pairings is included in the cost.
"Everybody's doing the gouge thing," says Berglund, "and we just thought, what's the point? It's going to be loads of fun--we'll have hats, noisemakers, balloons, we'll really get into it, all that rowdy stuff." How rowdy can things get in candlelight? Find out for yourself: At press time the Local had about 20 reservations left.
Table of Contents seems to be splitting the difference between rowdy and refined: Their $65 prix-fixe meal will feature live music and includes treats like grilled venison loin with huckleberry jam on a black-truffle-potato pillow, and options like 100-year-old, $15-an-ounce Madeira. A full vegetarian menu is available, and there will be options for more extravagant menu upgrades, too.
If your plans are to stay inside and batten down the hatches, however, you're not alone. Alexander Dixon of St. Paul's Zander Cafe, is closing for New Year's so he and his staff can celebrate at home. But you can join him bright and early New Year's Day, at a new annex tentatively dubbed Z. It opens this week and will serve breakfast treats like five sorts of eggs Benedict, omelets, and baked goods. Z, 518 Selby Ave., St. Paul, (651) 225-8933 will be open from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday.
If you still can't make up your mind, check out the City Pages New Year's Guide in the December 22 and 29 issues; it will list as many restaurant specials as possible, though there's no telling which will have tables available. Meanwhile, here's the information you need to make reservations at the aforementioned dining spots:
40 Seventh St. S., Mpls., (612) 332-4800
1934 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., (612) 871-0777
La Belle Vie
312 Main St. S., Stillwater, (651) 430-3545
931 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., (612) 904-1000
Table of Contents
1310 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., (612) 339-1133
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.