1420 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
Hey, do you remember the past? No, not that unfortunate episode with the rodeo clown when you lost your favorite shoes, the tamale-relevant parts, I mean. Do you? I do. When ours was the land of the double-cheese chimichanga and guacamole was made with both pivotal food groups of mayonnaise and sour cream--hold the onion salt?
I mean, when I first washed up on these elm-tree'd shores, in terms of Mexican food, it was like nothing so much as blundering into some kind of South Sea island where the natives had been so beautifully untouched by the modern world that they were happily sticking copper plates into their lips and waiting for Amelia Earhart to touch down. It was so bizarre. Old school, bona fide Mexican families had been here for three and four generations, and had evolved these ultra-dairy, ultra-fried, iceberg-lettuce-stuffed creations that were... that were... I see. We have children present. Well, hmm. Filling. They were filling.
And so I would quiz these nice families as to why their food was so very, very filling, and they would explain their cuisine to me with that cheerful nodding and smiling that you offer a six-year-old who's asked you for the hundredth time why people can't put their fingers into wall outlets. "Duh," they'd explain. "Minnesotans! Minnesotans can't eat anything spicy or weird, because even a single molecule of chili could violently rupture their delicate Swedish equilibriums, sending them scrambling for their Volvos and chasing them right into the safe cover of their cream of mushroom soup-stocked kitchens, forever! Forever and ever!" Like off-the-grid survivalists in bomb shelters, except with fewer AK-47s and more MPR coffee mugs and jars of onion salt.
That was then. Regular readers will know I've been tracking trends obsessively, trying to chart the emergence of a real Mexican restaurant we can all get behind, one that offers authentic food in a nice room, with beer, and (dare to dream!) margaritas; one that offers the chef talent that has been immigrating here in droves from Mexico and Central America along with in-the-city convenience, and all the pleasantries of a restaurant.
And I think, I almost, almost am ready to declare that we have it. And it is right at one end of the thrilling spicy Mexican L that has been traced smack dab through the middle of Minneapolis, from the river, down Lake Street to Nicollet Avenue, and down Nicollet to downtown. Right at the end of that L, where Nicollet feeds into downtown, is Salsa a la Salsa.
I know, it's not a memorable name. And, to tell you the truth, the menu is so haphazardly and repetitively organized that it is easy to order badly, and thus miss the many, many gems that the kitchen is capable of producing. But gosh darn it, I think that inside this family restaurant, in its big, rustic room, is the Mexican restaurant of our inevitable glowing Manifest Destiny! If only they could get some customers, I mean.
So, all of you south Minneapolis types who grew up in those mushroom soup kitchens and gave up on our Mexican sour-cream fry-offs, now is the time to creep tentatively from your safe nests of Diesel jeans and Whole Foods deli containers, and see that things aren't as bad as you remember.
If you only try it, I think your minds will be forever changed by the mixiotes de pollo ($9.99). The dish is made by filling a fresh banana leaf with chicken, avocado leaves, handfuls of fresh herbs, plenty of spices, and strips of cactus leaf, and steaming it until the entire thing takes on a haunting, hard-to-pin-down taste that is all vegetal brush and tender, subtle chicken, like tasting a jungle seen through steam and squint. It's wonderful.
Wonderful Minnesota Mexican? I'm telling you, it's happening.
And here's how: It turns out the manufacturer of such wonders is Lorenzo Azria, who owns Salsa a la Salsa with his wife Elvia, and runs it with the help of plenty of family: His daughter waits tables during the day, his son-in-law at night, and the youngest kids help when they can. Lorenzo grew up in the Mexican village of Popo Park, near the town of Amecameca, which is on the side of those legendary volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Ixtaccihuatl, which are visible from Mexico City.
"Mixiotes is an ancient, pre-Columbian way of cooking," explained Lorenzo, when I talked to him on the phone for this story, "but they used to use the outer skin of maguey leaves. Then, when I grew up, my mom and her family put cactus leaves in everything, because they grow in our backyards." One day Lorenzo saw a recipe for a mixiotes made in aluminum foil--which he thinks is horrible, because it makes the food taste like metal--and got to tinkering, and a few decades later we've got this marvelous dish in Minneapolis.
Lorenzo had plenty of time to tinker. After leaving the side of the volcano he spent most of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s in Los Angeles hotels and catering companies, where he married Elvia (sister to the founder of the Tacos Morelos empire), learned French cooking techniques, watched the California Cuisine revolution, and invented all sorts of dishes that combined authentic Southwestern tastes and techniques with the low-cal, high-taste needs of Los Angeles's high-octane power-players. Lorenzo says he has cooked for Julia Roberts and Jackie Collins, and just ask him about the things he has catered for Danny DeVito's Fourth of July festivities.
That's why the restaurant does things like their excellent orange-jicama salad ($6.99 for an entrée size, $3.50 for an appetizer). Order the salad and you get a bounty of fresh romaine topped with a delicate julienne of jicama and orange sections, tossed in a distinctive sweet and dusky vinaigrette. An orange and garlic marinated salmon filet ($9.50) with papaya chutney is likewise fresh and beach-simple--and for all you readers writing me with Zone diet boredom, I think you would do pretty well here.
Then again, for anyone wishing to torture Zone dieters, the desserts are easily the best in any Mexican restaurant in town. A pineapple-filled tamale with vanilla ice cream and cranberry chutney is better than I can probably ever convince you: The tamale itself has all the minor-note sharp and sweet of a pineapple upside-down cake, while the chutney and ice cream broaden the experience. Rice pudding ($3.99) is full of cinnamon and nutmeg, and utterly memorable.
The restaurant's other strong suit is any savory dish that would be found on any home family table: The chicken chilaquiles ($9.99) here are fantastic, the tortillas piquant from stewing with tomatillos, the fried egg giving a comforting edge of bland, the accompanying oregano- and thyme-bedecked, marinated, and quite bold chicken breast reminding one that chicken breasts are not always pallid.
The carnitas plate ($10.25) offered fried bits of browned pork that were meltingly tender and terrifically charming. Nearly every entrée comes with rice, refried or black beans, and tortillas. And as most things clock in around $10, this place isn't just good, it's one of the cheapest good dinners in the notoriously overpriced Holidazzle/Loring Park/Orchestra Hall/Convention Center zone. In fact, with a full beer program and very nice real tequila margaritas made from scratch, it's hard to find anything to complain about.
So watch me go. The one problem with Salsa a la Salsa is that the menu is actually likely to prevent you from having a good meal. Not only are all the Minnesota Mexican clichés on it--taco salads, southwest Caesars, chimichangas, and the dreaded combination plate!--it's also studded with dishes that fill any experienced Minnesota Mexican restaurant-goer with fear and alarm. Dishes like "Three Amigos Enchiladas," or shrimp scampi. Just as bad, a few sauces star in half a dozen dishes (for example, Chicken Chiltepin, Shrimp Chiltepin, Carne Asada Chiltepin), which almost guarantees diners will have a bad meal, since all sauces don't really go with all things. Indeed, the two things I didn't like at Salsa a la Salsa were the tough carne asada with the inappropriate chiltepin sauce, and the shrimp cocktail, in which a sweet tomato sauce and chunks of fresh avocado were marred by some non-thrilling, almost-defrosted shrimp.
All of this means that diners without a road map like this one, or the patience to try every darn thing on the endless menu, might never stumble upon the various works of genius. Which, to recap, are anything with cactus, anything very home-style, or anything you would eat on your agent's lawn if you were Julia Roberts. I guess I'm so worked up about this because after four visits I never managed to try the chile relleno ($5), and now I've learned it's painstakingly made by hand, the pepper roasted, then dredged in batter, then fried, then stuffed....
I mean, like so many of you, I've stopped ordering chiles rellenos in Minnesota, because they tend to come out of the same freezer bag the jalapeño poppers do, and life is short. How could I have known they were homemade?
Though of course I certainly understand why the Salsa menu is so inclined to hide its stars behind a curtain of conventional--they're hedging their bets when looking at us, and our dicey regional history, and we too hedge our bets, by staying home. Truthfully, we all have reasons to be nervous. Old traumas run deep. And who among us really feels completely safe from the days of mayonnaise and onion salt? But I say the time is now: Let us declare an end to our long, regional nightmare.
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