The Chile Factor

El Burrito Restaurants

Skyway level, TCF Building, 121 S. Eighth St., Minneapolis; (612) 339-0711

Ground-floor level, North Star Building, 618 Second Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 339-8620

Hours: 10:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m. Monday-Friday

What kind of restaurant is open for three or four hours a day? A skyway restaurant.

"It's amazing to see," says Jeff Alexander. "There are these eating hours and boom! It's like a bell goes off, and thousands and thousands of people leave their offices, flood down into the skyways, and then they'll either go eat, or buy stamps. There's this little window of time. Everybody's got 30 minutes and then boom! They're gone. Ghost town. They used to have 55 minutes, but now they have 30. The face of productivity increases."

Alexander should know; he has been watching the faces of productivity for 17 years now, running skyway-abutting food spots with his wife Debba Alexander. Today they own the two El Burritos as well as Alexander's restaurant. Turning those faces of productivity your way is no easy feat, but the Alexanders have figured out a strategy: Perfume the air with chiles.

The first time I noticed the place, I had armfuls of bagels weighing me down, but even all that dough couldn't distract me from the amazing fragrance. I was drawn to it like a toddler spying unguarded stemware. Now I've been to the places four times and can report that their burritos stand squarely in the first rank of Twin Cities burritos, alongside such hall-of-famers as Bar Abilene, El Burrito Mercado, and Tejas.

I particularly liked an El Burrito burrito filled with beef diablo, a rich, spicy, smoky stew full of the taste of just-roasted dry chiles, and I also grew fond of the chicken mole, a sweet, nutty, intensely fragrant combination of chicken breast, ground toasted seeds, and chiles. All the house-made salsas are fresh and good (though the tomato salsa has that fresh salsa half-life--it's twice as good at 10:30 as it is at 2:00). That said, I thought the tomato salsa was appealingly forthright, just fresh chopped tomatoes brightened with cilantro, lime, and onions. And the tomatillo salsa has a form-perfect sour bite. The beans are a cut above standard issue: Black beans are stewed with rice to give them an earthy breadth; pinto beans aren't mushed and fried, but cooked twice (to eliminate fat) and combined with a touch of feta, to give them depth. I thought the nonfried refrieds and the beef diablo were an irresistible combination to put in a burrito, the sweet platform of the beans providing a secure base for the roundhouse punch of the chiles. That'll knock you out of a morning's office stupor.

Burritos start at $4 for rice and beans and house-made pico de gallo; $4.95 gets you that plus a vegetable or meat filling and cheese. For $5.95 you can get the "grande" with your choice of all sorts of add-ins, like shredded lettuce, pickled jalapeño slices, sour cream, and more of the usual suspects. All the burritos come in long, thin paper bags, their sleeves topped off with corn chips. As usual, regulars knew their way around the joint better than I and seemed to have developed deep intuition for what went best with what, pinto beans with pork and cheese, chicken mole without beans but with fresh, whole sprigs of cilantro.

The one bit of insiderish knowledge I picked up was of the negative type: I went to the El Burritos three times by myself and got takeout with good results. But the one time I brought friends we didn't get there until just before closing time, and the food was a mess. The mole was strangely watery, as though someone had tried to dilute a thickened pan; they had run out of guacamole; and there was no more of the day's vegetable filling. I wouldn't go again to either of the places after 1:00 p.m., because the food seems to get exhausted in the steam trays.

I am definitely going to try to go back on a Tuesday though, because that's when the chicken verde is served. Alexander says it's a cult favorite, drawing people through the skyways from a mile off. ("If we don't have the chicken verde, people call me up at Alexander's and say, 'Jeff. Now what the heck is going on?'") I believe it: When I was there for beef diablo day, which arrives every other Friday, I found an engineer who comes in all the way from Eagan for the things.

I don't know how he ever found it. For those of you who don't know where the Northstar Center is, my best advice is to take to drink, because this sentence marks the end of hope for you. Yes, some could argue that it's simply west of Second Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets, but that's like arguing a burrito is just a taco made Cadillac-size. It's not; it's a different thing altogether. It's taco plus California plus big. Truly, the Northstar Center isn't just skyway; it's where the skyway goes mad, seizing all the passers-through, whisking them into a rabbit hole of an escalator, spitting them out into a corridor made of half mirrors and half travel agents under glass, then driving them toward a black-and-white tiled multilevel terrace defined by a Burger King and an Arby's on the far edges, a fruit stand in the middle, and an open-air Saturn showroom with cars nosing ominously toward the fruit. The whole tableau suggests, above all, an action-adventure movie. ("No! Keanu! He's not going to drive straight through the--" [squealing tires, flying watermelons, the police chief skids in, slipping on a banana].)

And there, flat against one wall, unseen in the mayhem, is the burrito shop, most easily located not by sight, but by scent. Sniff for the odor of newly roasted chiles, the thing that gives El Burrito its edge. Debba Alexander was once a chef in New Mexico, and so when the Alexanders set out to open El Burrito, they knew enough to take their chile selection seriously, and flew down to New Mexico to search out the best supplies. Today they work with a Southwestern chile broker who gets his flavorful stock from farms all over Mexico and the Southwest. Now they get fragrant cartons in the mail. Chef Helen Lopez Duva takes the chiles and works her wonders, roasting the dried vegetables, deseeding them, boiling them, blending them with other roasted or ground ingredients, straining the mixtures, and doing all the hard work you need to do to make real Southwestern and Mexican food.

"It's a lot easier to work with a can of chili powder," notes Alexander, adding dryly that the employees with deseeding duties would probably prefer the quick work of a can opener. But Alexander prevails, knowing that if you hope to capture the attention of eddying throngs of time-pressed speed spelunkers, it's best to bait your hook with the most potent perfume you can find.



AND ALL THE VEGANS SHOUT HALLELUJAH! Vegans and vegetarians, did you feel a rumble in the Force a few days ago? March 19 should have stirred you, for that was the day that long-beloved local bakery French Meadow debuted its new role as a nighttime, vegan-friendly full-service restaurant, with a wine list and everything.

Organic wines and microbrewed beers were only the beginning; now chef Jon Grumbles has begun to roll out a gourmet vegan menu the likes of which the Twin Cities has never seen. Grumbles, who joined French Meadow a month ago, hails from Manhattan's Candle Café, and will roll out items like cornmeal-crusted tempeh cutlets served on garlic mashed potatoes with a country-style gravy and a side of sautéed spinach, and herbed portobello mushroom quesadillas.

"Now, normally I don't find quesadillas all that exciting," admits Lynn Gordon, French Meadow owner, "but these were just fabulous, made with these wonderful greens and herbs. I'd say Jon's food is so wonderful because he puts a lot of care and purpose and good energy into his cooking." And, as far as I know, he's the only chef in town who's also a practicing vegan: If anyone should know how to do it, it should be him.

On the Web, I found out a little about the Candle Café, discovering a lot of vegetarian fan-page gushing, and an elaborately ingenious, 18-ingredient, work-all-day recipe for tempeh cutlets published in Vegetarian Times magazine. ( Will this finally be the vegan experience you all have been craving?

I hope so. But Lynn Gordon hopes I don't just keep saying, "vegetarian, vegetarian, vegetarian." She thinks her place gets typecast too crunchy. So please note that there will be nightly fresh-fish specials, organic chicken, and plenty of high-protein stuff generally--like Woman's Bread and Healthy Hemp Bread, which are so packed with protein they're Zone-diet-appropriate. I spoke on the phone with Gordon while she was out in Anaheim at the Natural Products Expo, where she was signing up national distributors for her miraculously low-carb hemp bread, which she says is made with Canadian and German hemp seeds, provides all nine essential amino acids, and, of course, contains no THC. Though please note the bread's label: "High fiber, high protein, higher health through hemp"! The grown-up in me recognizes the joke, the 14-year-old can't stop snickering. Ah, the duality of life.

When I spoke to her, Gordon was fretting about the duality of the whole meat-free, meat-craving world of oil-and-water Minneapolis diners. Did I think traditional restaurant-goers would avoid the French Meadow dinners, for fear of seitan? Or would vegans stay away, objecting to the specter of organic chicken bratwursts at the next table? I told her I didn't see upcoming friction. Surely all those many diners who write in to me bemoaning the state of local vegetarian cooking will do everything they can to encourage a local, meat-free, gourmet experience. French Meadow Bakery & Café, 2610 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis; (612) 870-7855;

BREATHTAKING: The Loring Pasta Bar has opened in Dinkytown, and you've gotta see it. The space is nothing short of breathtaking. Imagine a giant, swirly art-glass paperweight, as seen from inside. Inside the paperweight, you can eat things like steak frites and pastas (from $6.95). Are people excited? Boy howdy. The first Saturday night they were open, there was a waitlist from 6:00 to 11:00 p.m., and that's even with the cautions they're handing out to all callers: Don't expect too much yet. As one manager I spoke to put it: "We're definitely in previews. We've got a lot of major burps and farts to iron out." Loring Pasta Bar, 327 14th Ave. SE, Minneapolis; (612) 378-4849.