1221 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
appetizers $5-$14; entrées $16-$25
During lunch one day at Indio, the new, chic Mexican restaurant in Uptown, the kitchen was out of the chicken stew, pollo de olla. Our waiter apologized and suggested his favorite, the huarache Azteca, a thick, homemade tortilla topped with cecina (thin bits of dried, salted beef), chiles, queso fresco, and crema. I nodded agreeably, then he paused to confirm: "Are you okay with an olfactory challenge?"
Did I miss something? Was cecina related to limburger cheese? Would it waft an awful eau de armpit?
"I mean, do you like spicy food?" the waiter clarified, much to my relief. "Or are you more into Minnesota foods, like cream of mushroom soup?" I looked around the dining room. All of the customers, including myself, had skin the shade of flour tortillas. I realized why he felt compelled to ask.
In the not so recent past, most Twin Citians who didn't grow up eating Mexican food knew it only in the form of Chi-Chi's or Taco Bell, where "cooking" meant squirting guacamole out of something that looked like a caulking gun. But as the local Latino population has swelled in recent decades, authentic Mexican cuisine has flourished. El Burrito Mercado moved to its iconic Concord Street space; Mercado Central brought south Minneapolis a lively Latin American marketplace; and the local Scandinavian stock learned to enjoy Mexican food at places that didn't tone down the spice or drown dishes in dairy.
With most of the best Mexican food in town being served at inexpensive, no-frills, liquor license-less places, it was only a matter of time before the influence of Bobby Flay's $15 shrimp tamale made its way to Minnesota. In 2006, the Italian-focused D'Amico restaurant group made the leap to Mexican posh by opening Masa restaurant on Nicollet Mall. Masa's dining room could pass for the cafeteria of a contemporary art museum, with its colorful murals and sparkling tile, and soon it was full of young downtown office workers sipping bright cocktails at the bar, or dining on rib eye steak with chile ancho.
Indio, then, is the city's second foray into elegant Mexican cuisine, and it's brought to us by chef Hector Ruiz and his wife, Erin Ungerman, who also own El Meson and Cafe Ena. While all three restaurants specialize in cuisine from the Spanish-speaking world—tamales and ceviche are on all the menus—each has its distinctions. El Meson is the most casual, serving Spanish and Caribbean food in a cozy, tavern-like space (it's the only one with a lunch buffet). Cafe Ena is the most refined, with its light-filled dining room and gussied-up Latin fusion food. Indio is the hip, younger sibling, with an Uptown address and fully stocked bar. At Indio, as well as Ena, home-style cooking is given a gourmet touch, and the menu features several nontraditional dishes such as lime-serrano pork tenderloin, duck flautas, and agave-ancho chile scallops. There are parallels, certainly, to the menu at Masa, but the restaurants feel very different, with Masa's downtown digs drawing a business crowd and destination diners, while Indio is more of a neighborhood hangout.
Indio's Lake Street space formerly housed Pizza Nea, and the modern, utilitarian dining room is now decorated with bold, brightly colored paintings and a window curtain imprinted with an image of Frida Kahlo. Muffled only by a few decorative cloths draped across the ceiling, music and conversation bounce around the room so loudly that you can hardly hear your own cell phone ring.
The huarache recommendation, by the way, was a good one. The cecina has some of beef jerky's salty, flavor-concentrating qualities, but its texture isn't nearly as tough. I'd describe it as being like chipped beef, but I'd hate to associate it with the unfortunate military dish. Despite the waiter's warnings, the huarache had just the right amount of heat, as did the chile mayonnaise on the torta adobada—marinated roast pork with cilantro, avocado, and pickled onions on a pillowy Mexican roll. Real heat-seekers should order the camarones al la diabla, sautéed shrimp in a hot-sour lime-tequila sauce with a wickedly addictive tangy burn. My favorite entrée was the 7 Mares, a spicy, smoky, tomato-based stew of mussels, shrimp, squid, and fish, which is known as a hangover meal. After finishing my bowl, I felt so fortified in body and soul that had somebody suggested some sort of bone-chilling, nerve-testing venture—say, surfing in Lake Superior—I would have leapt at the chance. At other nearby Mexican restaurants catering to a non-Latin crowd—Baja Sol, Chipotle, Bar Abeline—dishes this hot might be served with an obligatory side of sour cream, but here the kitchen wisely forgoes that unnecessary apology.
The kitchen's more experimental dishes, though, still need some refinement. Filling flautas with duck was an interesting idea, but the duck's flavor got buried beneath the tortilla. Huitlacoche (pronounced wee-tlah-KOH-cheh) is a fungus that infects maize, sometimes called corn smut or Mexican truffle, and I was intrigued to see the Aztec delicacy used in several dishes, since it's not often seen in local Mexican restaurants or markets. Unfortunately, the huitlacoche's woodsy flavor got lost in the vinaigrette for a seared ahi tuna salad, and, though it worked better in the mashed potatoes served with seared scallops, it didn't quite marry with the accompanying sweet-hot agave-ancho chile sauce.
I was happiest at Indio, unsurprisingly, during its happy hour, and not just because I drank my way through a rainbow of carefully crafted cocktails—though they were impressive. The Corazon, made with strawberry pulp and Chambord, is as ripe as wounded love. The Veracruz margarita is a sassy mix of Cointreau, mango, and passion fruit accented by a chile sugar rim. And the glowing green O.V.N.I., which combines the flavors of Midori, pear, pineapple, and agave, is as otherworldly as the name suggests—it's the Spanish acronym for U.F.O. (Indio's non-alcoholic drinks get equal attention: The extensive list includes tamarind juice; Jamaica, a drink infused from hibiscus flowers that tastes like a perfumed cranberry Gatorade; and spritzers made from fruit purées.)
The happy-hour snacks, all priced at $5 or less, were a hit parade of mini tacos and ceviche, of mole tamales with toasty cinnamon-chocolate notes, and of crisp flautas stuffed with creamy potato filling. The most outstanding plate was the tostaditas—smoky chicken tinga served on homemade tortilla chips with pico de gallo and a drizzle of crema.
It seems silly, I know: going to an upscale Mexican restaurant and eschewing the gourmet entrées for the bar food. But Indio's version of Mexican cuisine seems to work best not for its experimental leaps but for its subtle refinements. (Take the coconut caramel flan, for example: A little layering of flavors and textures—it's sprinkled with sweet, Rice Krispies-like croutons—can transform a traditional dish from satisfying to spectacular.)
That has been the case, at least, with the gentrification that's taken place over the past few years in local Asian cuisine, as informal mom-and-pop spots like Thanh Do, Saigon, and Ruam Mit have been joined by newcomers with notable wine lists and ambiance to spare: Azia, Mai Village, Ngon Bistro, Chiang Mai, and Indio's neighbor, Tum Rup Thai. Sure, the menus are a little different between the old school and the new, but most diners still frequent both, and they base their decision to visit less on the slight differences in food and more on the way it's packaged. Are you looking to celebrate, imbibe, or impress, or do you just want some quick, cheap eats?
There's plenty of interest in Mexican food to support Masa, Indio, and the humble taqueria. When Masa's sleek surrounds seem too stuffy, and the taco joint's tables too sticky, your best choice is Indio.