Most of the Enchilada
1070 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
After nine years of reviewing restaurants nigh weekly, I took a long holiday this past winter, and, for nearly two months, dined in. During this time I received news about restaurants the way most people do: by the vague cultural osmosis that consists of glancing at headlines of newspaper articles I didn't read, listening to the opinions of people I don't respect, and, generally, paying no mind. This was interesting in several ways: One, I feel like I understand the American electoral process much, much more deeply; two, I emerged with the absolutely wrong idea about Masa, the new big-splash D'Amico restaurant in downtown Minneapolis.
I thought it was an expensive expense-account palace, the sort of place that's just soaking with high design and bubbling with food that's ambitious, culinarily sophisticated, regionally exact, and possible only with rare and exotic ingredients. If you think this, too, please know that loosey-goosey cultural osmosis is doing us all no good.
For I write to you now having put Masa through the full reviewer's set of hoops and tortures and can report to you the real deal: It's just a basic Mexican restaurant. Just that! Just a basic, likable, everyday pan-Mexican restaurant in a big tiled room, a place with $2.50 tacos at lunch, good pozole and not-good-enough chicken mole at dinner, and, all the time, good guacamole and great margaritas. It's a little more expensive than the old-school neighborhood Mexican restaurants you're used to--$7.50 for guacamole--but not by much. Mostly, it's just like your old neighborhood favorite Mexican joints, except it's more contemporary and stylish.
Style-wise, Masa's got big window-walls; a distant, whitish ceiling; pale chairs; and accents of light glass tile, all of which make it feel hygienic and built for crowds. I spent a fair amount of time one night arguing with myself over whether Masa felt more like the poolside area of a nice resort or more like a museum cafeteria. Finally I decided it was an argument neither side could win, so I took my half of the frequent-flyer miles and called it settled.
In any event, Masa has the best chips and salsa in town. The chips are thick and good, and served in a nice china bowl, not in a lowly basket, and you get three salsas served in pretty little white bowls lined up on a white serving tray: one hot and smoky; another sweet, a little spicy and bright green with raw tomatillos; and the third mild. The appetizers are pretty basic stuff: The Mexican-style shrimp cocktail ($9) is chopped-up shrimp and avocado served in the traditional way, marinated in a tomato sauce perked up with cilantro, onions, garlic, and sliced canned olives. It tastes fine, all perky and fresh, just crying out for a beer--of which Masa has almost a dozen, including Dos Equis lager on tap ($5) served in a very pretty, straight-sided, thin glass.
Sea bass ceviche is made with fresh fish and lots of lime. The guacamole is just-made and very bland, just an avocado mashed with a bit of onion, chopped tomato, cilantro, a few thin strips of serrano chile, and lime juice. It's served with chips, slices of radish, and chunks of cauliflower, and feels very healthy, as if you're eating in a raw-foods restaurant. The corn and shrimp chowder ($8.50) is a sugary bowl of golden pureed corn given texture with a handful of chopped shrimp pieces. Fairly forgettable stuff, but not unlikable.
Masa's strong suit tends to be the humble dishes: At lunch tacos, at dinner sopes, at either pozole verde. The tacos at lunch are marvelous, made in the classic Mexican style with a pair of small, thick corn tortillas graced with a topping and a sprinkling of fresh chopped cilantro and finely diced white onion, and a section of lime on the side. They cost only $2.50 each, and four of them make a good lunch. I tried all on offer, and particularly liked the al pastor, which has a nice, sweet, smoky spice to it, with rectangles of fresh grilled pineapple adding bright happiness to the pork. The fish tacos, made with snapper, featuring chunks of white fish cooked with a gentle dusting of spice and combined with a fresh salsa to serve, were light and good. If you don't have the time to make it to one of our super-authentic taco spots, like the food court at Mercado Central, the Masa tacos are a good substitute.
At dinner the sopes appetizer ($8.50) is similar. Here, instead of tacos you get the thicker, plumper, cornmeal pancakes known as sopes, but they're topped with the same kind of good, spicy, humble toppings that have made Mexican tacos so popular. When I had them, they featured a slightly sweet shredded chicken in a pale, creamy chipotle sauce, spicy and gamy chorizo and potato, and roasted, thinly sliced green poblano chiles and onion. Grilled green onions, known as cebollitas, made with lots of lime juice and a bit of cayenne ($3) are another humble hit: They're sharp, simple, sweet, and delicious.
Pozole verde was the final dish I really enjoyed at Masa; here the classic soup of rib-sticking, chewy kernels of hominy corn is made with a bright green stock full of pureed oregano. The bowl was brimming with pork and chicken; beside the bowl sat four little dishes holding fresh chopped onions, cilantro, radishes, and more oregano, so you could enliven and season your meal as you went. It was altogether light, plain, fresh, and nice. (I know a lot of you are going to go beserk when you hear the price, $13.25 at dinner or $10.75 at lunch, but you know, we live in an age of $12 burgers and $16 meatloaf plates. Also an age of deficit spending, so maybe it's not our fault.)
I found that most of Masa's more ambitious, chef-driven sorts of things fell flat. The sea bass broiled with chile ancho-piquin salsa ($23.50) was overcooked, and tasted acrid, like stale achiote. The chicken mole ($15.50) tasted like all the other ones in town, which is to say it lacked a real robust, deep and rich nut and chocolate depth, and offered merely a bittersweet disappointment. The worst, though, was the puerco veracruzana ($17.50), roast pork shoulder served cooked in a banana leaf. It was greasy, chewy, and miserable, when it could have had the big joys of concentrated carnitas, or the gelatinous mystery of plantain-leaf steaming.
It's enough to drive a girl to drink. Which is the most fun you can have at Masa, as their margaritas are excellent. They're made exactly the way they should be, with fresh lime juice and, mostly, a run of good silver tequilas. Their lowest priced one, the Americana ($5.50), made with Sauza silver, makes most of the other margaritas in town taste like spoiled sugar water. The pricier ones, like the Mayan Margarita ($8.50), or Mezcal Margarita ($8), go past good to downright absorbing, made as they are with liqueurs with evocative, unusual perfumes. I actually think these may be the best margaritas in Minnesota, edging ahead of my longtime favorites, the ones at Bar Abilene, because of their sticking to the traditional form, in lowball glasses, with the tequila playing a more aggressive role.
In fact, all of the beverages are strong. Masa has the best wine list for a Mexican restaurant in town, which is saying nothing. But the $23 Torrontes from St. Lucas is indeed an ideal chips-and-tacos wine, and if someone's insane enough to want a $128 Chateauneuf-du-Pape with their churros, they now have that option.
Speaking of which, the short but sweet, literally, dessert menu at Masa is utterly likable: The coconut flan ($5) is as sweet and rich as it should be, and has a nice, subtle, nutty coconut shadow of flavor. The tres leches cake needs some work, as it tastes merely like a sponge of condensed milk; but the churros ($5), those long, star-shaped donuts, are hot and crisp, and come with a good hot-chocolate sauce for dipping. Hot churros and a great Margarita--doesn't that sound like the making of an excellent happy hour?
Well, it isn't, because, sadly, the bar at Masa remains the same little one that was there when the space was home to that Marshall Field's cafe. Which is too bad, because if the place were more of a bar we'd really have something, a worthy destination to add to the bar-crawl of the Local to Brit's and back again. When I was there one Saturday night, groups of young, boisterous, happy drinkers kept pushing their way into the bar, looking around at the grownups with their plates of $7.50 guacamole and sides of radishes, and turning tail into the night. They'll be back in the daytime, I told myself. After all, there will come a time when the generation raised on Chipotle is going to want to take it a step further, and when they do, Masa will be right there for them.
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