Value added: Why buy just the shampoo when you can get a bottle with a little conditioner cryovaced to the side for the same price? The chip bag with 25 percent more, free? Hell, yes! A complimentary bag of pretzels with your $800 flight to Cali? You know you're not happy unless you get the pretzels.
Well, here comes your value-added Uptown Mexican restaurant, the one you've been waiting for all this time. We don't know why it is that the better the Mexican food, the more unassuming and humble the surrounds tend to be, but it leaves us with an age-old ache in our hearts: We want the good tacos — the ones with the handmade corn tortillas, scattered with tiny, jewel-cut diced onions and just-chopped cilantro and housemade salsas — but we also want a nicely mixed cocktail, a room that has seen a recent coat of paint, a ceasefire on the blasting telenovelas in the corner, and maybe a candle on the table at night.
Tinto Cocina + Cantina has all of these things and even more added value: brunch, great dessert, a sidewalk patio, and possibly, at some point in the future, live music on weekends.
Rebecca Illingworth is the former owner of Bin Wine Bar in Lowertown. She's also a Renaissance woman with a deep love of travel and a sixth sense for things that make life worth living. She was born in Mexico City but grew up in the Midwest — her beauty queen mother was told that she had to relocate here in order to lose her accent so she could go into TV broadcasting. The accent never left, but Illingworth arrived, thankfully with the cuisine of her motherland firmly rooted in her heart.
She's got a good level of humility about the demise of Bin in 2014, and thanks to what didn't work there, she knows what what she wants to do here. She'll start by serving the food she's most passionate about.
The menu is mostly a tightly focused compendium of Mexican and Caribbean favorites, and is at its best when faithful to the classics. The half dozen or so tacos are excellent; you can scarcely go wrong with those little handmade corn tortillas, and they've got a line cook whose sole job is to patty and griddle them. The steak comes medium rare and cut precisely on the bias — not the overcooked mess of bits and ends some taco joints hawk. The fish is lightly battered, with a cornmeal toothiness for extra texture, and just might get our vote for the nicest fish taco of the moment. It comes garnished with habanero aioli, avocado, and pickled cabbage instead of the ubiquitous tangle of raw cabbage we usually get.
In fact, each taco varietal has just the right amount of cheffy punch without being fussy. Barbacoa gets a surprise smattering of peanuts; the chicken pibil mixes happily with spiced almond and fresh basil. Our only complaint is that they're not available a la carte, so you're stuck with your choice of one flavor. This is a shame. Bring a friend, or better yet, two, for more opportunities to mix and match.
Tinto's chef is Carlos Garcia, out of Chicago, otherwise known as the Mexican cuisine capital of the Midwest. He's also Illingworth's boyfriend, which she's shy about as she wants him to shine all on his own. She needn't worry; he's doing just fine. He hails from Carnivale, one of Chicago's biggest, baddest Mexican dining institutions with a tome of a menu. But here, things are focused, with only four entrees, a smattering of sides, and a list of small plates that evoke strong feelings for cocktails.
The ropa vieja is excellent, with chubby little fried plantains for scooping. The pernil, an elusive Puerto Rican dish of pork shoulder braised in copious aromatics (garlic, onion, cumin, oregano, vinegar, and lime) served over rice with olives is utterly triumphant — piquant and craveable. Somewhat less successful were the albondigas — meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce that brought to mind Italy more than Latin America, though Illingworth says they've now been swapped out for flautas. Ditto a shrimp ceviche, which ate more like a shrimp cocktail, each prawn lined up in a row and cloaked in a cold sauce of roasted tomatoes, chiles, and beer that didn't quite work.
Brunch is well on its way from good to great. If you're the type to take Mexican leftovers from the night before and put an egg on it, know that you can have that here, only fresher, brighter, and livelier. And you can get it with Bloody Marias and Palomas, tequila mixed with grapefruit Jarrito, lemon, honey, and orange bitters — a knockout twist on a margarita. (Just beware of drinking too many in the direct sun, as this combo quickly puts Sunday naps on the agenda.) Chilaquiles are the same ones you'd get in Mexico, with house chips doused in beans, crispy braised pork, salsa verde, and a runny over-easy egg. A fat, rustic, open-faced steak and eggs torta is banked with a hill of potato jalapeño hash. Not fancy food, not too elevated, just good and honest protein plus spice to take the edge off last night's excesses (and good drinks for starting on some new ones).
Tinto is a work in progress. Illingworth says she has been bringing in mixologists from Chicago to help refine the bar program. She's also been building out a second bar with floor-to-ceiling windows to let the outside in, and she's putting an awning over the patio sidewalk. It's a sweet little independently owned, woman-powered operation that gets improved with each visit, by the grace of Illingworth's tenacity and elbow grease. When she sees a bockety wheel, she oils it. She takes suggestions to heart. She's getting to know her own place, right along with you, the diner. She recently moved a block down from the restaurant, so now she's truly a neighbor (though her apartment windows face in the opposite direction because there's such a thing as too close for comfort).
The Tres Leches cake is better than the one you know and love from 112 Eatery. It's light and airy as a sponge, infused with a tropical liquor fine as liquid candy, and finished with fresh pineapple and coconut and a quenelle of sweet cream. The whole happy hour menu is five bucks. The wine, the beer, the snacks, five bucks. No menu item is ever over $20. They've got a whole list of simple tortas at lunchtime. The kids' menu includes a color-your-own Luchadore mask. That's worth a visit alone, is it not?
It isn't perfect, but Illingworth is constantly adding value. You get what you pay for, plus a little something extra.Tinto Cocina + Cantina
901 W. Lake St., Minneapolis