The Spicy Side of the Street
211 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
1515 E. Lake St., Minneapolis (In Mercado Central)
José's Mexican Foods
730 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
1522 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
809 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
2150 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
311 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
I witnessed a stellar bit of one- penny opera and graft the other day in a taqueria on Lake Street.
See, it was twilight, and raining. Out the window, in the dark sky, the old Sears tower loomed with all its melancholy weight and gothic height. Inside the taqueria, Baby considered the glory days of tacos, which are now upon us. The only other folks in the joint were a gaunt, tall, gazellelike man lurking by the trash cans and an agitated man in a nice wool suit--one of those suits with large gold buttons, the kind yacht captains wear. It was double-breasted, and the rain frosted the outside of it in a jaunty way; he looked for all the world as if he had just leapt off something with a teak deck. Or he would have looked that way, if only he hadn't been clutching a thin grocery bag holding a rain-wet box of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
As he stood behind me in line, he took out his wallet, which held at least $500 in twenties. While I took my numero and awaited my tacos, the yachtsman explained his plight to the guy behind the counter. Desperately, he wished to use the taqueria's phone. No, said the taco guy. Yes. No. Yes. Look, explained the yachtsman, you'll make a lot of money if you let me use the phone, I'll give you $5. The yachtsman took out the five and waved it around.
Needless to say, that changed things. Give me the $5 first, said the taco guy. No, I'll give you $1, said the yachtsman, changing his mind, and taking out a dollar to wave around. One now, and $5 later. The five and the one flashed. Voices were raised. Both the gazellelike man and I watched very closely. I was musing on the way cell phones have changed the world, and I was noting that until this resolved there would be no tacos for Baby.
Suddenly, the chicken entered the equation.
I don't know why, but the chicken was now being shoved back and forth between the taco guy and the yachtsman. As is usual when wet fried chicken is at issue, yelling ensued. The yachtsman took his chicken and stalked back out into the rain, but not before suggesting unusual uses that the taco guy might find for his close female relatives.
With that, the gazellelike man sought to make peace, and rushing to the door, recalled the yachtsman to the taqueria. He asked the yachtsman something I couldn't hear, and the yachtsman took out his $1 bill, and his $5, and waved them around, recounting the argument for the gazellelike man, who seemed to assure the yachtsman that he could make the taco guy come around.
The gazellelike man took the bills. He approached the taco counter. Oddly, he seized hold of a duplicate printout that had spooled out of a little receipt printer on the taqueria counter. He brought the printout over to the yachtsman, and, with the theatrical display of a magician, held the printout out in front of his head, and crumpled it into a ball.
He showed the ball to all of us. The paper ball, he seemed to say. He balanced it on the back of his hand, and then flipped his hand over, balancing it on the palm of his hand, as if he would close up his hand and open it again to reveal a dove. He threw the paper ball high in the air, and, as it climbed toward the ceiling, as it turned and twirled, he left.
Lake Street, regulated by the pattern of stoplights, was momentarily clear, and the gazellelike man loped gracefully across the rain-wet street, with the long-legged, easy gait of a natural athlete. As we watched, a burst of cars appeared, their headlights tracing glittering arcs in the rain. As the cars came, the gazellelike man turned into a misty alley, vanishing. We watched the paper ball on the floor.
Later, I got my tacos. The yachtsman returned to the ever-chilling rain. The taco guy cackled with glee.
Why do I tell you this? Is it merely to brag about the homemade horchata I got that evening, which was thick and full of just- grated cinnamon? Is it because I am trying to foment even greater divisions between taco guys and yachtsmen? Is it because I am on the payroll of the cell phone cartels? Perhaps. But more importantly, I want you to know that all over Lake Street there are now tacos worth committing petty crimes for. Clearly, the gazellelike man knew that six bucks was the only thing separating him from some of the best Mexican food Minnesota has ever seen.
Personally, I have spent the last four months trying to find the best, the definitively best, reliably best tacos on East Lake Street, in that sweet and spicy corridor that stretches between I-35 and Hiawatha. I tried and failed. It is impossible: Great taquerias on Lake Street have lately made up their minds to come and go as quickly as wildflowers. However, I can tell you that, as I type this in the last bit of October 2004, each of the following places is a hall-of-fame favorite, for the following reasons.
Taqueria La Hacienda: If you only veer from your regular rut one time this year, veer to Taqueria La Hacienda. This light- filled, high-ceilinged, tangerine-tinted little restaurant just off the highway in that weird building with the outdoor chandelier specializes in the street foods of Mexico City, and especially in catastrophically terrific "tortas." At La Hacienda these aren't just sandwiches, these are hot, griddled, baroquely filled sandwiches the size of footballs. Eating one is kind of like getting hit by a wonderful, wonderful bus. (Most cost $5.96; the place is open till 11:00 p.m. every day, and until 3:00 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.)
The al pastor is the must-order: You see it the second you walk in the door; it's that psychedelic orange spit of spiced, barbecued pork that's topped with a pineapple core and spins like a gyro cone. (Legend says that this style of al pastor evolved when Lebanese immigrants settled in Mexico City and Puebla, Mexico.) Order it any kind of way and you'll revel in the sweet, rich, spicy purity of the thing. It's everything you like about meaty baby back ribs, given a little tart spice.
However, if you order the al pastor alambres you may never recover: For this, they take the spicy meat and put it on the griddle with onion, bacon--yes, I said bacon--and green and red peppers, and fry the whole thing until it's a roasty lace of barbecue and bacon. Then they throw cheese on it-- heavens to murgatroid. If the al pastor is like getting hit by a wonderful bus, the al pastor alambre is like getting hit by a wonderful bulldozer. This is the best thing to happen to the after-bar experience since the invention of the remote control.
José's Mexican Foods: I've been to José's at least half a dozen times, and feel I have only begun to scratch the surface of the wonderful cooking here. José's is the least typical of all the Lake Street taco joints. It's got a sweet, homey, rural, small-town feel--it reminds me of an out-state, farm-country café. Actually, it feels more Zumbrota than Minneapolis, if you know what I mean. This vibe might come from the way the large room is filled with widely spaced secondhand kitchen tables draped with cheerful oilcloth toppers, or it might come from the way everything that issues from the kitchen here is gorgeously home-style and hand-done.
I've had tamales ($1.50) here that were as light and loose as matzo balls, the corn meal so buoyant it barely held together around the fillings. Each bite contrasts the rich and fluffy tamale outside with the vibrantly spiced fillings. I've had a lovely tomatillo chicken tamale, the citrus pop of the tomatillos energetic against the broth-cooked sheets of chicken meat, and a feisty cheese-chorizo one, in which the corn sheltered fiercely spicy, colorful layers of chewy cheese and finely ground sausage.
The tacos at José's are lovely. I especially like their al pastor, in which the barbecued pork comes with itsy-bitsy squares of pineapple, which adds a certain festive air and brightness of flavor. I also love their tinga, here chicken stewed with well-grilled onions in a not-too-spicy but very flavorful chipotle tomato sauce. Oh, I almost forgot the fried chorizo and egg plate! And the savory picadillo taco filling! Well, suffice it to say that José's has a solid dozen options to fill your taco, and I've never had anything that was less than excellent. (Tacos here are $1.39 Mexican- style, or you can add 11 cents and have them American-style with cheese, sour cream, tomato, and lettuce.)
I did once have a bowl of pozole ($4.99) that almost made me cry: The broth was that kind of thick, flavorful, dense but clear joy that comes from a day simmering on the stove. This broth was loaded with pulled chicken meat and tender bits of chopped-up pork shoulder, and every time I sank a soupspoon into the bowl, bits of pork and soft, perfectly resilient islands of hominy jumped into the bowl of the spoon. Every bite was like being well cared for by your new Mexican mom. If you've felt lately like no one cares about you, José's pozole begs to differ.
Carne Asada: The most restaurantlike of the Lake Street taquerias, Carne Asada is a newly built spot on the corner of Chicago and Lake that is filled with attractive Mexican tile work and industrial- architectural copper and steel accents. They serve beer; they have nice new wooden chairs and tables. They also have some of the best horchata on Lake street-- homemade, thick, rich with rice and freshly grated cinnamon.
As you might expect, the carne asada is the specialty here, and the stuff is addictive. Imagine everything you like about a hamburger that came off a perfect grill--the char, the well-fried onions, the savor, the smell you can bite into. Now imagine it in the form of steak. That's the carne asada here, and brother, it's good. The pierna, thinly sliced pork stewed in a savory tomato-chile sauce, is also good.
Whatever you get, though, I highly recommend--no, strike that. Whatever you get, I violently, I wildly, and I almost hysterically recommend that you get your topping on one of the homemade, griddled- while-you-watch masa forms that Carne Asada specializes in, be it gordita, sope, itacates, tlacoyos, or dobladas. For any of these a Carne Asada cook will take a kind of half-cooked corn pancake and sear it until it's crisp and crackling without, and steamy and creamy inside. If you get the combo platter number three ($6.95), you can get a gordita, a doblada, and a sope, and then fight it out with yourself over which version is your favorite.
La Mexicana: Across the street from Mercado Central, in that big, terra-cotta painted building that used to hold the antique mall, is now a huge Mexican grocery store that I think is probably currently the best Mexican grocery in Minneapolis. It's got three great qualities: One, the dazzling butcher shop, full of everything you need to cook real Mexican, or, for that matter, real French or Spanish, food: pork in a hundred forms, pre-chilied steaks, head-on blue shrimp, pork feet, skin, blood. If you have ever thought about trying your hand at pâté or cassoulet, put La Mexicana on your short list.
Two, La Mexicana has a snack stand right inside the front door that is ideal for picking up a quick addition to dinner: Quarts of fruit salad ($4) which they will garnish with chile powder and freshly squeezed limes, hot tamales ($2), and sometimes cups of hot corn called elotes. These elotes are great-- they grill corn on the cob, cut it off, toss it with leaves from a fresh, lemony herb called epazote, and, when you order it, ladle it into a cup for you, squeeze fresh lime juice over it, add grated cheese and, if you want, mayonnaise. Rich, sour, sweet, savory--it's everything you like about au gratin potatoes, in another culture's vernacular.
Finally, the last reason to love La Mexicana is that, toward the back of the store, there is a little cafeteria counter that serves some great grub. The first thing to know about the counter at La Mexicana is that there is sometimes a gigantic glass jug on the main counter full of agua fresca. Order whatever is in it. Sometimes it might be a juice made with watermelon purée, sometimes it's homemade jamaica, a light, tart kind of hibiscus tea. It's always good. Ask about the Oaxacan tamales (pronounced "hwa- hocken," or, in Spanish, oaxaqueño, generally, "hwa-keenyo"), in which sections of pork rib are wrapped with masa and a spicy chile sauce inside giant banana leaves and steamed until they're as tender as jelly--eating one is like swimming in a dream of a jungle.
One time at La Mexicana I had the tacos de asada ($1.49), beef and onion griddled together until they were as dark as coal and as potent as thunder, and I thought they might have been the best thing I had ever tasted. However, I've been back since then, and it hasn't been as good. I'll keep at it though, because when chasing the dragon comes with guaranteed quarts of fruit salad, it just seems worth it.
Pineda: The first of the great Lake Street stand-alone taquerias, Pineda remains a treasure for anyone looking to eat on the fly. It's certainly not the ambience that does it--the place retains the uncomfortable look of an abandoned Pizza Hut--it's the food. Last time I was in, there were fully a dozen different stews on offer for filling your taco, torta, or burrito. I especially like the chicken tinga for its smoky and complex, almost mushroomy edge of vegetal dusk. For a lark, though, I ordered something I hadn't ever tried before, the alambre de res ($8.25). Holy buckets. They start with fajita steak, red and green bell peppers, and clumps of chorizo, just fry and fry and fry the stuff until the peppers are charred, the chorizo is crisp, and the steak is plump, greasy, and delicious. Then they load it up with cheese and serve it to you with fresh slices of avocado, tomato, and lettuce, alongside a pile of hot tortillas, beans, and rice. Load up as many sliced radishes, pickled jalapeños, onions, and piles of cilantro as you can handle from the fresh garnish bar and prepare to know what it means to be full, and fully flabbergasted.
The only problem with Pineda is that they've had too much success with the native Minnesotan community, which means that now the counter guys generally assume that if you don't speak real Spanish you probably want your taco with cheese, sour cream, lettuce, and tomato. So you gotta watch 'em. I mean, nice work, Dara-of-two-years-ago! Why don't you screw up somebody else's tacos instead of your own? I mean, just watch this paper ball here. Watch it very carefully. I'll be right back.
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