Refried Disaster

Offering new hope for Minneapolis's Mexican food lovers: Pineda tacos 2
Sean Smuda

Dear Dara, FYI, Chico's has changed! We read your review and were really excited for some Mexican food. The menu was completely different than the reviews, so I asked and the person behind the counter said the previous owners up and left. We were too embarrassed to leave, so we ordered. Bad call. It was the worst meal of our lives. We are both in the restaurant business and were horrified by what was served to us. My partner was convinced that cigarette butts had been part of the recipe for the refried beans. Please let your readers know. I would not want this to happen to any of your readers!

Stephanie of Minneapolis


Dear Stephanie,

La la la. I cannot hear you. La la la.




Dear Dara,

I went to Chico's based on your review, and I loved it! It was the best burrito I've had in the Twin Cities!

Unfortunately, I went back last week and found the place under sudden new ownership! The chefs are gone, and the food is absolutely not the same. In fact, it's quite avoidable.

Virtually everyone coming into Chico's asked, "Where did they go?" But the new owners just kept repeating, "We don't know. We don't know. We don't know."

Dara, do you know if the chefs are relocating/reopening under another name? Please let me know. Thank you!

Dan of Minneapolis


Dear Dan,

What's that out the window? Is that a bird?

Or what?




Dear Dara,

[insert 200 more of the same]

[Every vigilant citizen of the entire metro, growing increasingly angry]


Dear Everyone,

Fine! Fine already! Do you know what it does to me to contemplate the vanishing of the restaurant that will heretofore be known as The Good Chico's? Do you have any idea how many crappy, unpromising restaurants I went to before I found Chico's? Do you have any idea how many bouts of food poisoning I endured, how many wasted afternoons dumping plates of crud into yawning dumpsters, how many extra steps on the StairMaster endured for plates of refried beans that tasted like window caulk?

You, you might have liked The Good Chico's, but me? For me, the vanishing of Chico's represents a thousand levels of calculation that ultimately failed. Failed! The way an entire year's worth of Harvey Wallbangers have failed to erase the memory of that unfortunate incident in Karachi with the fan dancer and the locomotive. Failed!

Because every single week I sit here and try to do several things at once, not counting the fan dancer. I mean, I try to adhere to this rigorous, exhausting set of self-imposed criteria.

One, I try to review the prominent and important restaurants, good or bad. Except sometimes I skip the ones that are so predictably bad that visiting them would again result in all that blood in the drapery and being Medivacced to Happydale, which does terrible things to the health insurance premiums around here. Second, I try to find good things. Good things to eat, good stories to hear, good chefs to talk to. Because this is a harsh and forbidding land, and if I didn't, we'd all hack each other apart with sharpened soup ladles within a year--that much is clear. Then, I try to not to waste anybody's time: I'll write about something inconvenient to all you readers (whom I imagine all living somewhere where, if you could levitate six stories above your bedroom, you would see with the naked eye either the IDS Center or the state capitol) only if it's fantastic, and consistently so. Why would you care about a pretty-good place in the middle of nowhere? Why would you care about fantastic food that can be had in a repellent place, erratically? Of course, I try to write about only the places that I think are going to be around for a while. Because otherwise, why waste your time? Wouldn't you rather know about something you can use? And naturally, I never write negative reviews of little mom-and-pop shops in remote locations: Why would I warn you against doing something you'd never do anyway? (Don't chew on that fern over there! Don't cover your clothes with tapioca and bake them in a low oven overnight! Don't... Look, if I wanted to devote myself to dispensing patronizing bits of common sense, I'd go into public health.)

So now, now I'm screwed. I wasted all those days finding The Good Chico's. Now it is gone. Oh, there's still a Chico's there--but, as the new ownership informed me, this one is called Chico's Tecate Grill. Not Chico's Mexican Grill. (But my guess is it won't be called that for long--at least not once the news reaches corporate minders who control that name and who vacated their location in an Edina strip mall last summer, setting the stage for this mess, this endless string of no-money re-christenings, this shell game of Chico's Chico's Chico's--where's the pea? Double or nothing!) The Good Chico's changed hands January 31, I was told on a recent visit by a woman who claimed to be the new owner, and now I'm in a lose-lose situation. Because I don't write negative reviews of out-of-the-way mom-and-pop shops, remember? But I can't help feeling that people are having horrible times at the new and less-said-about-it-the-better Chico's because of me, and that your time is being wasted because of it--whereas if I had simply reviewed some medium-okay Italian place in Minnetonka, it would still be there, wouldn't it? Failure! How I hate it.  

My initial thought was that I would--like a parent who breaks the news of a run-over pet with the present of a new puppy--find something to replace The Good Chico's. But I couldn't find anything good enough for you. I came awfully close, though, with Pineda Tacos 2, the new taco and torta place that moved into the old Pizza Hut spot at the Hi-Lake Center. (Letter to Pizza Hut: I blow you a thousand kisses for pulling your goddamn name off the roof, because if I had to do another string of "It's Pizza's Mexican Hut," "It's the Pizza Hut Grill," I'd kill myself.) I've been checking in on the place every few weeks, and it gets ever more promising every time.

If you get a torta ($4.49) filled with one of the spicier stews, like the rich, dusky, and fiery pork-chipotle, you'll get a totally overwhelming cyclone of super-intensity that will leave you happy all day--if you're built for rough roads, that is. It's an enormous sweet bun, grilled, swiped with mayonnaise, and filled with the stew of your choice, along with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickled jalapeños, refried beans, and slices of fresh avocado. Mercy! On the lighter side, the tacos at Pineda are pretty great too: The stewed chicken in a green-chile/tomatillo sauce with cubes of potato is well flavored--herbal and solid, but nicely light.

The best way to eat here is to get takeout; my current favorite is to order three tacos ($1.55 each) and just point and order from the many guisados (meat stews) in the steam trays (there are normally about 14, sometimes there are more). The tacos are put together for you with salsa, chopped onion, and cilantro, and they are very, very good. Good, too, is the fact that the place is open till 11:00 p.m. most nights, and till 2:00 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays--the after-bar satisfaction in Minneapolis is doubling every day. (Pineda Tacos 2, 2150 E. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612.729.5320; in the old Pizza Hut building in that strip mall on East Lake Street between Hiawatha and 20th Avenue South.) If you don't get takeout, however, you are going to sit in a dark and depressing old Pizza Hut. That's the problem with new puppies. They are not the old dog. Chico's! Where are you? (No, I don't know where the old Chico's crew went--who am I, Sam Spade?)


Dear Dara,

I hope your article on Chico's was a test of who is paying attention. I am still trying to get the taste of ketchup out of my mouth. The food was truly awful. Tortilla chips with ketchup, shrimp el diablo (shrimp in ketchup), etc. I know we are all pissed off about $19 burrito prices and the Twin Cities invasion of Chipotle "rice wraps," but giving this one a passing grade deserves a yellow card. Chico's does appear to be targeting the appropriate clientele--cheerleaders from Edina--which is about the most positive thing I can say about the restaurant. As long as I am passing out failing grades, I'd like to share the test results for Lurcat: F-. Let's burn it down and build a giant birdhouse for all those crows in the park.

Matthew of St. Paul


Dear Matthew,

I like everything about this letter. The fury. The loathing. The scattershot rage and attribution of unfathomable hidden motives. (Mom? Is that you?)

What I particularly like about the letter, though, is the way it opens an entire new universe of possibility. Here I go up and down the avenues, fretting and wringing my hands over a self-inflicted set of pansyish burdens when an entire other set of guiding principles awaits. Exit Dara, critic and worrier; enter Dara, Trickster God!  

Yes! Indeed, Matthew, you have solved it. Finally, someone has. That column was a test of who was paying attention. This column is a test of spatial reasoning. The last column was a test of your blood lipid levels. Certain columns in November actually provide instructions on the assemblage of tents in windstorms. And, while we're getting things out on the table, my entire 1999 oeuvre was actually little more than an extended anagram that provides careful readers with the true identity of Jack the Ripper.

Now that we've got all that on the table, I can stop with the bouts of food poisoning in far-flung noodle shops. I can quit the whole mediocre suburban Italian rat race and take up residence in the quilted room the nice men have been trying to get me into.

But before I go, I'd like to hand out one last hot tip--on the soon-to-open brunch spot of your dreams. It's a cozy, 200-seat place that specializes in $7 all-you-can-eat brunches, features a Taittinger Champagne fountain flowing freely on every table, and there's never a wait. Best of all, it's right on the corner of 23rd Street and Lyndale in the throbbing heart of Uptown. I don't have a phone number for it yet, but it's called Snype, it's scheduled to open April 1, and it's definitely worth the hunt.

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