Nico's Taco goes for authentic Mexican fare
Like many Aztec legends, the story of pozole, a basic but wholly comforting Mexican stew, is a fascinating and gruesome one. Many cultures gather around of big pot of simmering something as a way of building and feeding their community: the French with their pot-au-feu, the Vietnamese and pho, for which we are all eternally grateful, and, of course, we upper Midwesterners with our booyah, a dish many of us never knew was indigenous until we referred to it outside of the Midwestern cocoon and were met with a bunch of blank stares.
The practice of group stewing may not be unique to any one population, but only the Aztecs took things to a more literal level, combining their community pot with a little ritual human slaughter. Accounts from anthropologists and ethnographers reveal that on special occasions, Aztecs used bits and pieces of sacrificed prisoners in their pozole. After the Spanish came and colonized, the Catholic church banned cannibalism, but pozole survived, and evolved into the modern version we see in Mexican restaurants today.
Thankfully, the bowl of pozole served at Nico's Taco and Tequila Bar on Hennepin is not traditional, at least not in the Aztec sense. Instead, it has tender shreds of pork shoulder, a rich chile-infused broth, and a heap of puffy hominy — an underrated ingredient that acts almost like little cubes of cornbread in the soup, soaking up all the layers of flavor and adding some textural interest. Pozole is finished with all kinds of accoutrements, which vary from region to region. Sometimes a bowl is topped with crisp chicharrón, decorated with slices of avocado, or sprinkled with cilantro. Here, it's served with small piles of shredded cabbage, thinly sliced radishes, a few wedges of lime, and dried oregano, all on the side, for diners to add as they please.
The whole steaming bowl, served with a pinto bean and cotija cheese tostada is, at $7, one of the best deals on this restaurant-filled block of Hennepin. Moreover, something about the dish really jives with the inherently homey space that Nico's now occupies, a building rich in restaurant history. Locals may remember it as Pandora's Cup, a popular smoke-and-study hub back in the late '90s; then as the well-loved but ultimately ill-fated American bistro the Duplex; and most recently, as Stewart and Heidi Woodman's short-lived health-centered eatery, Birdhouse. Though the pokey corners and cramped kitchen present somewhat of a challenge to the people who work here, the building's quirks and coziness also make for a unique dining experience. And although we are nearing the tail end of the season, the front patio here is ideal for people-watching and margarita-sipping, the cocktail of choice at Nico's.
They do a handful of mostly fruity variations on the margarita, including a sweet-tart one with pomegranate, yuzu, and blood orange juice. They also craft a fresh, savory one made with cucumber and agave that would probably be great as a warm-weather drink, or, as another diner categorized it, a "post-workout cocktail". But the table's favorite was the hot and sweet Chile de Arbol margarita made with lots of fresh lime juice and a righteous dose of tequila, and punctuated by flakes of potent, high heat bird's beak chile, resulting in the kind of brash, fun party-goer that you want a marg to be.
Purists will be happy to see a mid-size selection of fine tequilas for sipping, not as big as the lists at Barrio or Abilene, but an appropriate collection for the scale of the restaurant. In an interesting ongoing project, Nico's owners Tim Ross and Alex and Jenna Victoria, the husband-and-wife team behind Uptown's Amore Victoria, are also working on barrel-aging their own tequilas, but they aren't ready to release them just yet.
To complement your drinks, you'll find a bevy of options in the chips and dip category. Nico's offers several house-made salsas ranging from a mild verde whipped with avocado to more fiery blends with grilled tomatillos, roasted garlic, and Serrano peppers. Diners can order a single bowl or a flight of three to determine their favorite, but that's the only way to get chips and salsa here. They don't come free at the beginning of the meal as is customary at most other comparable Mexican restaurants. The guacamoles — one traditional, the other with bacon, corn, and cotija added — were texturally on point, somewhere in between smooth and chunky, but were overall somewhat disappointing for the $8 single serving or $12 double dose. Under-ripe avocados seemed to be the main culprit, but both versions lacked the balance of salt and acid that makes guacamole so addictive. The decision to serve it in a gigantic molcajete seems a little odd, as table space is at a premium, and because judging by the entirely clean sides of the vessel and absence of a pestle, the guacamole is not actually made in the molcajete it's served in.
The rest of the menu is composed of massive but messily, loosely rolled burritos, crispy fried flautas, smothered enchiladas, and smallish corn tortilla tacos — all with your choice of various meats. The best of the options were the spiced barbacoa and the pork loin in salsa verde; the middling ones were the drier carnitas, chicken tinga, and the chewy tongue; and the least impressive was the somewhat fishy camarones. Though all the tacos and many of the other dishes were served with a few wedges of lime intended to give that final citrusy finish, a lot of Nico's food seemed to be otherwise lacking in that initial acidity. This was later explained as a decision by the Victorias to be true to the Michoacan regional style, a detail that would help diners immensely in understanding and appreciating the overall approach to the cuisine here. Had a server taken us through the menu, highlighting favorites, and giving a brief expository song-and-dance, it would've gone a long way indeed.
Nico's just recently added a few desserts to the menu, including traditional and chocolate flan, and hot cinnamon-sugar churros, fried to order. Though it seems a missed opportunity to not serve these with an accompaniment of house-made ice cream or a little cup of dulce de leche for dipping, a churro is rarely if ever a bad idea, and this one was particularly nice with a crispy, non-greasy shell and a puffy, doughnut-like center.
Time will tell if Nico's is just what the area needed, or if this particular piece of restaurant real estate will continue to prove problematic. They're still shifting things around and grooming the menu, adding and refining dishes week by week. The real question is whether Nico's will be able to serve its intended audience, which seems to be the immediate neighborhood. For Mexican cuisine, the pickings are still relatively slim in this wedge of Uptown. Still, Nico's challenge will be compelling customers to put down the Chipotle burrito and enjoy a more leisurely pace with things like craft margaritas and pozole. If they step up the service a bit and manage to pull off something that makes them more distinctive, like barrel-aging their own tequila, the Victorias could soon have another hit on their hands.
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.