Los Andres Restaurant
317 W. Lake Street, Minneapolis
Ecuadorians and Colombians live up in the northwestern corner of South America, and even when they're not enjoying their richly varied topography, which plunges from soaring Andean mountaintop to verdant tropical coastline, and their wonderful melting-pot culture, which accents Amerindian and European traditions with a bit of Asian and African flavor, I really doubt they are giving a flying fig about what Minnesotans like to eat for dinner.
I venture this because most Minnesotans I know don't really give much thought to the food Ecuadorians and Colombians eat, aside from assuming it's some other kind of Mexican—not out of any hostility, but just because, you know, life is busy. How many thoughts can you have? And still work that second job to pay your health insurance premium and blog about cupcakes and the dissatisfying never-ending of Lost, I mean.
But we should start thinking about high-plateau Ecuadorian and Colombian food, the meat and potatoes of it, the shrimp ceviche and peanut-tripe stew of it, the fruit smoothie and apple-scented sparkling wine of it, because we now have Los Andes, a Colombian and Ecuadorian restaurant not too far from Uptown, and the place is a budget-friendly (if barebones and TV-studded) find.
What should you order first? That depends on your personal motivation. If you're primarily on a hunt for deliciousness, I can't recommend the shrimp ceviche ($9.99) enough. This is a very different version from what you'll see in Minneapolis's many upscale, fusion, pan-Latin, mango-mojito restaurants. It's a soup bowl of remarkably tender shrimp swimming in a cold, pale broth of finely ground onions, tomatoes, and citrus juice. The broth is given texture by lots of thinly sliced red onions and big, fresh green leaves of cilantro, the whole thing topped with a handful of crisp, toasted kernels of roasted corn—the things most of us know as corn nuts. Yes, corn nuts! The barely salted kernels have an earthy, roasty, almost peanut-like quality to them, which accents the fresh, sweet qualities of the shrimp and makes the dish seem oriented to a whole other culture than we usually think of with shrimp ceviche. Put it next to a big glass of juicy, crisp, apple-scented Argentinean sparkling wine ($3.49) or a Negra Modelo, and you've got a dish that I predict every up-and-coming cook in town will be raving about for the next six months—it's just that unexpected, and that good.
Also delicious: the meat empanadas ($4.50), which are little fried bundles of dough filled with what tastes like mom's best Iron Range pot roast—not spicy, just wholesome, comforting pockets filled with a beef, potato, and green pea stew ready to make anyone who brings them to the State Fair and puts them on sticks a million dollars. The cheese empanadas ($4.50) are completely different; for these, flaky pastry is shaped into delicate half-moons and filled with a gooey, vanishing cheese. They are so simple, good, and pastry-like that they belong in a French bistro.
However, if your primary motivation in life is curiosity about other cultures, the appetizer for you is the mote pillo ($4.50)—quail-egg-size kernels of whole hominy corn, served hot and tossed with a sort of dressing made of scrambled eggs, the whole thing garnished with fresh scallions. I'm told this is the mashed potatoes, grits, or buttered noodles of its homeland; to me it tasted mostly bland, like grits, though a little hot sauce cured that. The hot sauce in question is the fiery Ecuadorian salsa known as aji (pronounced ah-hee), a cup of which is served with every meal at Los Andes. It's a concoction made mostly of onions and habanero chilies, and it gives anything it touches a nice backbone and zing.
Next, an appetizer for those driven by a hunt for value: the chuzo con arepa ($4.99), a sort of South American beef saté. You get two thin strips of well-marinated, lemony beef, threaded on a wooden skewer and grilled until they achieve a meaty intensity. Ecuador is said to be the land that invented beef jerky, and you get a sense of that proud history in this dish. The meat comes with a bland but good little arepa (a chubby corn cake) and just cries out for a beer and a friend, or at least someone to acknowledge that if this dish were being sold 10 blocks west it would cost three times as much.
Finally, if what you really want is something to take pictures of and blog about, look no further than Los Andes's version of salchipapas ($4.50), a classic Peruvian street food. For these the restaurant cunningly cuts sections of beef hot dog in such a way that, once deep-fried, the hot dogs explode into what can only be described as frankfurter Ninja throwing stars. They come arranged on a bed of French fries with a little ramekin of sweet, tangy dipping sauce, which I'm guessing owes some of its essence to mayonnaise and ketchup, and—frankfurter Ninja throwing stars! We've got it all in the Twin Cities, I tell you.
Actually, having it all, and eating it too, might as well be Los Andes's motto: Most of their entrees are three- and four-part platters, which average humans will be hard-pressed to eat in their entirety. One great option is a sort of South American pot roast, sobrebarriga a la criolla ($12.99), a big chunk of flank steak long-cooked in a mild, tenderizing sauce of tomatoes and onions until the meat echoes with deep flavor. It's served with a mess of red potatoes cooked alongside the meat, as well as stewed cassava and a pan-fried sweet plantain. As if that weren't enough, your server will present a second plate filled with sweet, earthy beans and rice.
One of my friends who lived in Central America declared Los Andes's bistec a caballo ($12.49) to be the most authentic Latin American home-cooking she'd yet seen in the Twin Cities. Los Andes piles a plate with a piece of sirloin, cooked like the pot roast I just described, and serves it with two fried eggs, red potatoes, cassava, a sweet plantain, and another side plate of rice and beans. "This much meat would feed a family of four down there," she said. "That's why people come here. But this is great. I'm bringing my family."
Speaking of family, the place is absurdly, wonderfully kid-friendly. The servers whisk out platters of house-made chicken fingers and fries ($5.50) for fussy kids with a speed that puts other so-called family-friendly restaurants to shame. Without being asked, they even split the house specialty fruit smoothies ($3.49) into special lidded cups. The smoothies are made with fruits you know (mango, passion fruit, blackberry) and ones you may not, like naranjilla, a tart, funky, almost mushroomy fruit, or lulo, or guanabana. The smoothies can be blended to order with milk and topped with whipped cream (agua o leche) or on their own (jugos naturales).
But back to the entrees. Los Andes offers a few items that are not strictly meat and potatoes—though remember, the Andes are the birthplace of the potato, so these folks know their spuds. Some of the most interesting dishes here have deep Amerindian roots, like that mote, or the stewed goat ($10.99), in which big, tender chunks of gamy meat are accented with sweet spices and stewed until they fall apart at the touch of a fork. It's great stuff. Guatita ($10.99) is an Ecuadorian specialty with an African touch—a buttery, creamy, almost custard-like tripe stew made silky by the addition of ground peanuts and made herbal with cilantro. You probably won't believe me, but this tripe stew bears a family resemblance to melted vanilla ice cream. (You can get the guatita tripe stew, the goat, and the restaurant's remarkable ceviche in one big combo platter, the Bandera, $12.99, so-called because the various dishes are supposed to resemble the Ecuadorian flag.)
Chaulafan is a soy-sauce-dark fried rice with shrimp that tips a hat to western South America's long history of interaction with Asian cultures and foodways. Arroz con camarones ($11.99) is a picture-perfect, light and tender version of saffron-bright Spanish rice with shrimp. Never mind that the coloring comes from traditional South American achiote, the shrimp were so tender, the rice so flavorful with peas, carrots, and sweet bell peppers that even though it isn't paella, it is still better than most of the paella in this paella-disaster of a town.
I have, however, saved the best for last. I'm betting the crowd favorite at Los Andes will be the absurdly generous mixed-grill plate Picada Los Andes ($12.99). For this humdinger of a whizbang, the kitchen brings out a huge ceramic plate heaped from one end to the other with marinated, sliced, grilled flank steak; marinated, sliced, grilled pork loin; sweet, juicy, sliced, grilled sausage; and cross sections of sweet, buttery, salty, creamy, rich, dangerously good skin-on bacon chunks (chicharon), all served with smashed-flat slices of deep-fried green plantain and a whole ripe, sweet fried plantain—oh my! All these delicious meats and meats and meats; all these delicious plantains! You can even pair your meats and meats and meats with a glass, or a bottle, of good South American wine, like the spicy Argentinean Altos Las Hormigas, for a mere $5.50 a glass or $21 a bottle. It's like eating at downtown's hot Brazilian steakhouse, Fogo de Chao, at a third the price, while catching up on Univision tabloid news at the same time. Chupacabras—are they coming for you?
If you don't want to catch up with chupacabras, Los Andes might not be for you, as the restaurant is less about serenity than it is about hanging out in your favorite Ecuadorian aunt's busy kitchen. The general vibe of the place is white walls, 1970s-looking stained-glass lamps, lots of televisions, a Pepsi cooler stocked with beer and imported Colombian and Ecuadorian sodas, and lots of nice, friendly people with good English skills. It's about food and presenting a bit of true family-style Ecuadorian and Colombian culture, not interior design. Still, I predict the place will slowly gain a devoted following, and when it does, there will be one north central United State that thinks about the foods of the Andean nations of Ecuador and Colombia quite often.