My Spicy Valentine

From Chico's with love: Food so good you won't notice the décor

From Chico's with love: Food so good you won't notice the décor

Chico's Mexican Grill

7078 Amundson Ave., Edina


The shrimp cocktail at Chico's, it is an awesome thing. A towering beer stein full of a homemade broth so hearty it's a soup, red from tomatoes, thickly flecked with sautéed celery, onions, chiles, and bell peppers, tender with pink curls of shrimp upon shrimp, and creamy with square-cut chunks of fresh avocado. It's served heated, with fresh cilantro, hot sauce, ketchup, a few tostada shells, and a long spoon; the goal is to scoop out batches of shrimp and broth, place them on pieces of tostada shell, and watch the world fall away. This thing ($7.95; serves two or three as an appetizer, or one as an entrée), this thing is living now in my hallowed pantheon of the Top Five Dishes in the Twin Cities. It's great--you look around and can't believe you're in a dingy strip mall so far out in Edina that it's nigh about in Nebraska.

And it's good that the world falls away, because the interior decorating at Chico's, it is also an awesome thing. Ever hear of Chico's Tecate Grill? It's a Mexican quick-serve chain, and there used to be one right, exactly, right here, where Chico's Mexican Grill now stands. The new Chico's replaced the old Chico's this past July, and the switch was done on such a shoestring that the remodel consisted of, as far as I can tell, nothing. Whatsoever. Same neon outside, same artwork, same booths, same soda-fountain sodas, same everything. "Right now one of our problems is we're fighting against Chico's Tecate Grill's bad name," says Luis Castillo, who co-owns the spot with Patricia Garcia. Castillo also explained that despite the similar name and changeless façade, few people have grasped that the new Chico's is entirely different from the old Chico's.

People. Can anything ever permeate our granite skulls?

Well, if anything ever could, it should be something from the accomplished stuff-in-sauce section of Chico's menu, because Chef Arghimiro Diaz really excels when it comes to sauces. The borrego (bor-AY-ho) is amazing: A lamb shank in a birria sauce, the meat is as tender as cheese, and the sauce, dusky, earthy, and brought to a point by the chiles, creates an overall impression of a gamy tobacco sunset. And it's served with creamy refried beans, rice that has a sweet hint of tomato, an avocado wedge, pico de gallo, and tortillas. When the borrego ($9.95) and that shrimp cocktail are on the table at Chico's, the restaurant is as good as Tejas, which is the highest local praise there is--and, obviously, The chile colorado ($6.50) is nearly as good as the borrego: With chunks of beef in a glossy sauce of ground, seared chiles and garlic, the stuff is potent and rich, and it's just fantastic when popped into a corn tortilla and topped with cilantro, onions, and a big squeeze of lime, all of which can be found at the condiment bar. My tie for third on the menu is between the picadillo, shredded beef in a red chile sauce, and pollo a la crema, ($7.95), chicken in a creamy, creamy cream sauce that's sure to inspire a pep rally at our local chapter of the National Association for the Promotion of Rogan Josh, Béchamel, and Fettucini Alfredo.

I also have nothing but positive things to say about the burritos at Chico's, and I pretty much hate nearly every burrito in town. In Chico's burritos you'll find that nice tomato rice, refried beans, and your choice of meat--including the lovely chile colorado or picadillo--bundled into a big tortilla along with lettuce, tomatoes, and pico de gallo, and topped with a creamy sauce, garnished with bits of scallion and tomatoes, and crowned with a big dollop of sour cream dusted with grated cotija cheese. Somebody cares! About a burrito! It's dressed up, lovingly presented--we never get that! I had never realized it before, but you know what? Most of the burritos I see in Minnesota seem begrudging and sullen, ordered by people who wish they lived in California, and served by people who wish it too. But not at Chico's. Luis Castillo says he moved here from Seattle, where he and Guadalajara-born chef Diaz worked together at the chain restaurant Azteca: Personally, I think everybody who works on I-494 should chip in to send a bouquet out to Seattle to say thanks.

And especially all of you who have spent more than an hour listening to the Flaming Lips while looking blankly at the back of an SUV, especially you should. Because Chico's isn't really a dinner spot: It's a fountain-soda, counter-service place that feels desolate at night. But if you work on I-494, if you work in the Normandale Towers, if you have the Onion bookmarked and do that irritating urban- suburban reverse commute that is the secret, never written about, mass irritation of fully half the successful thirtysomethings in town, this is your new lunch and takeout secret. Sometimes I just picture you all, Radiohead blaring from your Volkswagen speakers as you race up and down 100 and 169, forced to work in Bloomington office towers because your boomer overlords want to live in Tuscan eight-car-garage cabins in Orono and, frankly, I get seriously depressed. Not least because I know you are all being forced to lunch at T.G.I.Friday's. But finally! When you and the other person at work who knows who Nick Cave is, when you two want to go to lunch, finally you have somewhere to go. Also, somewhere to get takeout on the way home. I bet a couple of beers, a couch, Buffy, and a veggie burrito made with black beans, broccoli, carrots, celery, and mushrooms ($5.50) will soon be recognized as one of our human resources departments' most critical strategies for encouraging good mental health.

Also, good physical health. In fact, one friend I brought to Chico's was suddenly elevated from common levels of dexterity to skillful ambidexterity, miraculously able to wield forks in both left and right hands, because the shrimp cocktail and the chile colorado had appeared simultaneously. "You know," he said, "the room isn't even that bad." This from a man who once spent half an hour articulating the variety and depth of the problem with the dessert and coffee china of one of the Twin Cities' most expensive restaurants.

"No," I said, "it's like beer goggles, but for food. You're food goggling." He looked around and shook his head like someone coming up for air from a deep dive. He then shrugged airily, concluding that while I was right, he didn't much care, because the transformative powers of awe are not to be underestimated, with plastic forks in taco joints as with all things.