320 E. Lake St., Minneapolis; (612) 822-4395
Hours: daily 9:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.
No credit cards.
There are about half a dozen dishes I consider lifetime hall of famers on the Twin Cities dining scene: The grilled salt mackerel at the Sole Cafe; the raised, glazed doughnuts at Mel-O-Glaze; the bone-in ribeye at Manny's; the fried chicken at Lucille's Kitchen; the pizza at Punch. Rarely do I find a dish that vaults into that league instantaneously, but today I'm happy to announce I have.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to introduce to you the newest triumph of the Mexican kitchen, the greatest thing to happen to the corner of East Lake Street and Clinton Avenue since dinosaurs walked the earth, the best thing to hit the inside of a taco in the year 2000. Children of all ages, it gives me tremendous pleasure to present to you--quiet in the house, please!--let's all give a warm welcome to the roast chicken at Puerto Escondido!
I know, roast chicken doesn't sound that earth-shaking. So, please, call it pollo asado, call it pollo al carbon, but call it to your table posthaste, and you'll be rewarded with succulent, moist pieces of chicken sealed to its bones by crusts of crisp, well-spiced skin as delectable as sheets of the finest bacon. This chicken is available in three sizes: a quarter, half, and whole, for, respectively, $5.50, $8.99, and $13.75. It arrives at the table cut into serving pieces on a platter along with a plate of rice and beans and a container of steaming tortillas.
That's it. Simple perfection. It's one of those things so elementary, so elemental, and so common in other parts of the world--the last time I had chicken this good it was at a street market in Paris--that it triggers something deep in the brain: How has it been we've been living without a great roast-chicken place all these years?
This wonderchicken couldn't be in a less likely place: Remember the Hickory Hut on East Lake? That's where this is, and the Hickory Huttishness of it all has barely been obscured: From the distinctive yellow exterior to the misleading hours still stenciled on the door, to the chuck wagon sign hanging in the middle of the room, your eyes tell you Hickory Hut. Your ears tell you otherwise. There's always Spanish-language TV blaring from the corners of the room, Mexican soaps in the afternoon, game shows in the early evening, variety shows full of singing and dancing later on. No one speaks English, but you don't need to speak Spanish to get the best thing on the menu: That chicken.
Get a glass ($1.50) or a pitcher (a jarra, $4.25) of horchata, a cooling rice-milk beverage dressed up with ground cinnamon, and you can jazz up your tacos with scads of the potent house-made salsa with no fear. Penny pinchers, please note: With the family-style chicken and beverages by the pitcher, you can feast gluttonously here for well less than $10 a head.
Looking to spend more? By all means do. I ventured further afield on the menu repeatedly, and I found a lot of very good things. The simple onion-and-cilantro guacamole ($2.50) is always just-made. The seafood cocktails ($9.99-$10.50) are served in enormous parfait glasses and taste fresh, even if the sweet tomato sauce that dresses them isn't terrifically subtle (I say the nicely resilient octopus is the best of the bunch). And the generous portions of enchiladas presented with avocado, tomato, and onion ($7.50), are notable for never being oversauced or overbaked, and topped with pretty spin-art squirts of sour cream.
I can't recommend the whole menu though. Carne asada ($8.50) was a thin slice of briny meat, nowhere near as good as the carne asada at El Mariachi. Octopus pan-fried in butter and garlic ($11) was greasy and rubbery. And I still can't figure out what I thought about the seafood paella ($13), smoky, saucy bright-orange rice filled with teensy shrimp, lots of good bacon, tons of octopus, and a couple of green-lip mussels. It was salty, stewy, and rapidly devoured by my table, but in truth it wasn't real paella, and its main virtues seem to be the lazy ones of salt and fat.
Just when I was about to give up on the seafood on the menu, and there's a lot of it--crab, halibut, a plate of (untried) fresh oysters--I found another gem: Whole red snapper, or huachinango. The chef here just works wonders with whole critters. The fish is best ordered a la veracruzana ($15.50), deeply scored and pan-fried, crisp on one side and dressed with an exquisitely subtle smoky chile sauce that, unless I miss my guess, was made with a nicely restrained base of ancho chiles. My table reduced this delicious creature to a cartoonish skeleton while the bones were still hot.
Then we settled up and headed out into the world, stuffed and happy, well satisfied to find our universe one flawless dish wider.
SAN FRANCISCO NOTEBOOK: How does Twin Cities Vietnamese food stack up to the rest of the nation's? This is a question that's been of more and more interest to me lately, and on recent visits to New York I did a little snooping and eating, and I didn't find anything that even touched local treasures, like Minneapolis's Quang (2719 Nicollet Ave. S.; 612-870-4739), the Phuong Café (2424 Nicollet Ave. S.; 612-871-7116), or even promising newcomer Lakai (2550 Nicollet Ave. S.; 612-870-3727). What's New York, really, but a lot of overpriced real estate? The real Vietnamese restaurants are all in California--or so I've always heard.
So I made a pilgrimage to San Francisco and checked out a couple of the city's most renowned Vietnamese restaurants, Tu Lan (8 Sixth St.; 415-626-0927) and the Slanted Door (584 Valencia St.; 415-861-8032). Tu Lan is a divey, overheated little lunch counter that's famous--and I can't even remember where I first heard this--for being one of Julia Child's favorite spots, and the Slanted Door is upscale, first-quality-ingredient Vietnamese with a great wine list and fancy, artsy atmosphere.
Yet I can confidently report that the Phuong Café--in my book the most underrated basement in Minneapolis--does spring rolls that would make any Bay-area dweller green with envy. Phuong's rolls are fresher, lighter, brighter, and just flat-out better. And while the whole, deep-fried ginger fish--that's supposed to be Child's dish--at Tu Lan is awfully good, it's not any better than the tilapia I've had at Vientiane Sukiyaki Deli, that little gem of a Lao restaurant in the Nicollet strip mall that birthed both Quang and Rainbow Chinese (2734 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612 871-8737).
As far as the Slanted Door--well, it's just as wonderful as everyone says, a real eye-opener. Consider the bún. Now bún, that dish of various items like fried egg rolls, broiled, spiced chicken, barbecued pork and fresh vegetables served on cellophane noodles with nuoc cam--that sweet-and-hot vinegar- and fish-sauce-based dressing--can be great, or it can be lousy. I thought that the bún at just-opened Lakai was as good as it gets, made with scads of unusual herbs, well-spiced meats, prettily cut vegetables, and perfectly cooked noodles. But then I saw the bún at the Slanted Door: A work of art. They broil their chicken in a five-spice lacquer before pulling it off the bone and adding it to the beautifully composed salad, and that upscaling of the dish makes all the difference. Green papaya salad doesn't get standard treatment either; it's jazzed up with paper thin, multitextured slices of deep-fried tofu. And a grapefruit-jicama salad with candied pecans didn't sound Vietnamese at all, but it took the standard Southeast Asian accents of cilantro, mint, and vinegar to a new level. And the variety of cooking techniques--and serving crockery--is without any local equivalent. A clay pot of intensely spiced chicken owed its tenderness to individual unglazed tureens, and heaven knows how they got the cubes of tofu in lemongrass tofu to be as crisp as cereal, an effect only heightened by the accompanying strips of shiitake mushroom as tender as cheese. After that, it goes without saying that exquisite desserts such as a broiled-meringue-topped lemon-and-black-pepper tart can't actually be compared with local standards, like those ever-popular plastic cups of food-coloring-laced tapioca. It would be like comparing hothouse orchids to wild chamomile.
Still, I had some stinkers at the Slanted Door, too. Stir-fried crab with cellophane noodles was gluey--scandal! Overall, the primary feeling I came away with was that the Twin Cities have more than enough talent to stand head to head with the nation's most respected Vietnamese chefs. We just don't have the capital. Who around here has the money for rooms with 20-foot ceilings, organic duck, fancy serving dishes, and wine cellars? Still, a girl can dream: My hope is that you'll drop by one of our local Southeast Asian treasures as soon as possible. They're working wonders on shoestring budgets, and if we give them the support they deserve, maybe we'll sooner get the next level of restaurant I'm starving for.
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