Saguaro Attempts a New Kind of Mexican Cuisine in Southwest Minneapolis

Mexican food is the great culinary unifier. Fire-roasted meats, fresh salsas redolent with lime, toothsome ground corn, the familiar starchiness of beans, rice, and tortillas: These things taken together can be like a salve for the sometime austerity of life.

And yet, Saguaro isn't that kind of Mexican spot. There's no tequila, for starters, so don't begin contemplating what agave you're thirsty for tonight (though there is a decent short list of beer and wine to keep things civilized). There's nothing sombrero, cantina, or south-of-the-border about this spot. Saguaro is claiming its very own brand of Mexican: "AZ/MX", or Arizona-Mexican.

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What's that, you say?

Don't think of it as Tex-Mex, which Saguaro owners and mother-daughter team Caryl Abdo and Mandy Abdo Sheahan say "tends to be heavy with sharp spices — chili and meat and red sauce." Nor is it Cal-Mex, which according to them "tends to be very light, lots of bright, fresh vegetables with seafood and citrus flavors."

Instead, they say their newly coined AZ/MX "describes a style of food that lands somewhere in between: "lots of flavor and seasoning, but with lighter and fresher ingredients than you typically find in Texas; high-quality proteins, but with deeper flavors and more kick than you typically find in Cali." It is, Saguaro says, rooted in the culinary traditions of southern Arizona and Sonora (northern Mexico).

Attempting to introduce a whole new way of thinking about beloved culinary traditions? Ambitious, and not without its pitfalls.

Despite its location in the unfortunate old strip mall at 53rd and Lyndale, Saguaro transforms once you're past the threshold into a simple but clean build-out in muted bronze tones. It's a dimly lit, intimate dining room with a little gas fireplace in the corner that's a nice adversary to winter. An open kitchen lends an urbane din.

Decorative charms aside, the sound system is tinny, the playlist is trying too hard to be innocuous and as a result is anything but (we've got nothing against George Harrison and Steely Dan, but after two hours of '70s we were sweating through the oldies). If you're thinking about bellying up to the bar — don't. It's a cute but rickety little affair that brings to mind basement wet bars. If you're the first to arrive you might find enough elbow room, but it won't accommodate more than one or two intent on spreading out to do any sort of comfortable consumption.

The menu is tight and focused, usually a sign of good things to come. There are fewer than 25 items, almost evenly split between starters, tacos, and entrees, so don't come in search of your very favorite combination platter. A few familiar favorites (refried beans, chimichangas) are strewn in for good measure and balanced with simple takes on bistro favorites, European influences, and of course, "AZ/MX".

We couldn't resist the words "elote" and "bowl" together, and the resulting lush heap of sweetcorn sliced off the cob came all but bathing in a pool of melted butter — not much to complain about there, even if it was lacking in spice. The dish comes garnished with queso fresco, a few dollops of crema, and three pretty leaves of oregano, and the simple yet satisfying sweet-meets-starch-meets-fat appeals to the Minnesota palate.

Things went a little less well with the potato sopes, three dry fried potato cakes topped with portions of braised pork cheek that, while flavorful and perfumed with allspice and cumin, lacked the serious, knee-buckling plushness that good braise can inspire. Tangles of pedestrian cabbage slaw crowned each one, and a strange, watery thing that really shouldn't be called sauce blanketed the plate like a sort of barely reduced meat stock, thin enough to leak off onto the table.

The nothing-over-$17 entrees are straightforward takes on proteins — grilled hangar steak, braised pork osso bucco, and whole roasted trout. The hangar steak in a lovely deep crimson, smoky tomato-adobo sauce lacked salt, but was otherwise a beautiful cut of meat, hearty for the price, and cooked properly to temp. Pair it with a side of potatoes bravas and the above mentioned corn, and you'll satisfy any meat-and-potatoes hardliner.

A word on seasoning: Pro chefs have a reputation of having a heavy hand with the salt shaker — a reason why restaurant food tends to taste better than what you're making at home. Any chef worth his you-know-what will tell you it's the one ingredient he's unwilling to live without. Some of these guys make you just want to pry the salt out of their white-knuckled death grip.

At Saguaro, we wanted to foist a salt pot upon each and every one of them. In lieu of that, ask for the hot sauce — they dole it out parsimoniously and you must ask for it by name. It's best in class — full of habanero heat, roasty tomato, and chile depth, and is perfectly balanced with the appropriate amount of acid, intensity, and yes, salt. They should bottle it and go off and retire.

We must acknowledge the real technical prowess in this kitchen. The fried chicken batter is both crisp and light with moist meat within, and the accompanying mole is sweet and rich, unique and gratifying. The cucumber-tomato pico de gallo is brunoised into delicate cubes and served with warm, fresh tortilla chips. The "homestyle" taco (gringo taco) is nicely fried into a good and sturdy corn tortilla with familiar ground beef and cheese tucked inside.

But each one of these cried out for salt, salt, salt! We wondered if salt was present at all in the kitchen -- that is, until the whole roasted trout arrived. The menu promised salsa verde, which manifested more like an herby pesto, itself lacking acid or salt, and while the flesh of the fish was nicely cooked, alas, here was all of the salt. And salt paired with, of all things, capers. It was fairly inedible, and a sad final fate for a fish.

Twice we ordered the chicken tinga tamales — on one occasion we were told that it would be a 45-minute wait, a head-scratching answer unless they were thinking of making them from scratch, a near impossibility as legit tamales are a time-consuming, special-occasion undertaking.

On the second attempt, our tamales had reportedly been overcooked. When they finally arrived, they weren't worth all the ado. The tinga was quite wonderful — one of the few properly seasoned items on the menu — but there was precious little of it, and we found ourselves desperately trying to scrape together a cohesive bite, while pushing away the dry and overabundant masa dough. It was quite the operation, and left an embarrassing aftermath in its wake.

And yet, Saguaro is the sort of place we want to root for. Service is not just attentive, but genuine and earnest. They seem sincerely happy to have you around. If a dish was left unconsumed, they endeavored to get to the bottom of it rather than pretend all was well. When the tamales were late, a complimentary nibble landed in their place. Drinks never ran dry, and desserts were a genuine victory — tres leches cake and churros both as light and gossamer as the best pastries can get. The latter is even a contender for doughnut greatness, each one with a deft, balanced hand on the sugar and spice. We just wished that everything were as nice.

If you're a south Lyndale-ite with a family — a grandma in town, a meat-and-potatoes-only husband, a not-so-restaurant-friendly kid — Saguaro might just bring you all together, if only for an hour with a sweet treat and a vino, a nice enough bite or two here and there, and a smiling staff that's actually glad to have you.

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