Uptown wants a decent Mexican restaurant so badly, and why not? Mexican says: "Hey! It's the weekend!" Mexican says: "Hey! We can't afford a vacation so let's eat tortilla chips instead!" Mexican says: "Hey! Let's do shots and gossip about the cute boys at work!"
We were happy to see Boneyard go, with its transparent facsimile of what a few northerners thought a Southern fried-chicken joint should be. The Hennepin Avenue spot ultimately couldn't deliver — not with cooking, not with credibility, and not even really with fun. When Salsa a la Salsa moved in we cheered. Tacos would mend our disenchanted hearts!
First visits held reasonable promise — jaunty Day of the Dead skeletons danced across a Caribbean pink-and-blue backdrop, the airy room anchored by a big bar, the whole of it encouraging us to fight for our right to party. Vegetarian tacos were pretty and warm in corn tortillas, stuffed with charred green beans, squash, a generous dollop of guac. Not genius, but also not a complete throwaway, as if someone took a minute to think, "Hey, what would I like if I weren't eating meat?" But then Devil Mary chicken wings were served tepid, rendering the smoky chipotle-cloaked meatiness difficult to relish.
We seized on the cocktail list, but every drink, even house margaritas, always arrived lip-pursingly off-balance and rather undrinkable, even if sent back for another crack at the recipe.
At that point our banter about the cube-mate work crush, the one who thought it was okay to smoke an e-cigarette at his desk, well, now we'd all but forgotten about that boy and his smoking habits because our margarita was acrid and our chicken wings were cold.
Thinking some melted cheese would be calming, we ordered up pupusas with their promise of "golden griddled masa cakes stuffed with Manchego cheese and garnished with 'crudo.'" But they arrived not golden, not griddled, and with not a whiff, not a shred, not a crumble of cheese anywhere. Servers told us: "The cheese is blended in!" And we knew this to be a lie. The "crudo" was merely shredded purple cabbage; the cakes were grease-sodden.
So then we were sad, all thoughts of the cute boy effectively vanished. Disappointment had so addled our faces and furrowed our brows that he wouldn't have been interested anyway.
"Ceviche! Ceviche should cheer us!" we thought. "It's fresh, bright, tropical, and sure to delight." But is there anything worse than suspect raw fish? Now we were not just sad, but worried for our constitutions, too. Dull squares of Mahi Mahi laid flatly on a limpid leaf of romaine, looking as though it had been cut yesterday and not precisely even then. It was more fish-forward than it should have been and not bright or lively in any way. There are four styles of ceviche on order, and we say: Avoid every one.
By now we were as depressed as when the season finale of Mad Men got spliced into two chunks. But the orange jicama salad would not pull us from despondency! Why? Because cutting the jicama with a box cutter rendered it frayed, bruised, and lifeless, and the citrus was cut into strange cross sections so that all of the membrane and pith remained and it was mystifying how to eat them without spitting things into a napkin.
Tacos stood out, mostly because there was nothing specific to feel forlorn about, but also nothing to praise or to note. The grilled steak, reasonably seasoned and served with platter accompaniments of Spanish rice, beans, and tortillas, was fine if plain and for a moment allowed for a little girl talk. But that was only until we requested a small side of guacamole and were told we'd have to buy a whole order for $7.50. (We didn't.) There's a sort of salty wound sting to being told "no" after so many things have gone awry. You ache for a final strain of accommodation.
Other culinary crimes such as putting out winter-white tomato pico de gallo couldn't be offset by the few high points we found, including servers and hosts who seemed bright-eyed and eager to please; ultimately, they'll be unable to accomplish this enthusiastic charge, thanks to the heavy burdens they'll carry to each table, each night.
Mexican cuisine is really getting its day in the sun — we finally know that fragrant masa, complicated moles, deep roasty cochinita pibil, cracking fresh salsas, and tropical exotica of the Caribbean can enchant as thoroughly as the finest French cooking, perhaps more so.
That we're willing to accept tacos "popular style" with shredded iceberg and shredded cheese blend is not even something to look down our noses at — instead, it's a testament to our love of the cookery, and how far we're willing to go for it to meet us even halfway. Salsa a la Salsa is the crush who's just not that into us, and that's cool, because we've seen him for his foibles — good looks, little substance, and an unwillingness to kick nasty habits.
Salsa a la Salsa 2841 Hennepin Ave S. 612-455-6688
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