East Lake Checklist: Gorditas el Gordo to Pineda Tacos
This section of Lake Street, moving from I-35W east, is brimming with little spots serving up Mexican street food. On this trip alone, we ate at five. Add that to the seven we covered last time, and well, let’s just say, that’s a lot of tortillas.
The casual observer might be tempted to think these places are all about the same. But they’d be wrong.
While it’s true many have some of the same items on the menu and similar aesthetic tendencies — like menu boards covered with pictures of food, and a penchant for not displaying prices — make no mistake, each of these joints has its own personality. A slightly different spin. A slightly different specialty. Try the pozole at one. Get the jamon torta at another. The tacos al pastor might be a completely different experience from one place to the next.
But, in their own way, each of these establishments has earned its spot on East Lake Street. — M.C. Cronin
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The East Lake Checklist is the third Heavy Table illustrated travelogue to explore a major gastronomic thoroughfare in Minneapolis and/or St. Paul. The East Lake Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue and our 72-restaurant series about restaurants on the Green Line. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot on East Lake Street between 35W and the Mississippi River. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from Visit Lake Street. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue and the Green Line, this tour will be warts-and-all.
“From the river to the lakes, visitors and residents can shop local and be social on Lake Street. More information at VisitLakeStreet.com.”
Gorditas el Gordo
211 E Lake St
The green awning over the front window of Gorditas el Gordo spells out the restaurant’s name in appropriately “el gordo”-sized (fat) white letters. But despite its bold name, it’s a relatively unassuming joint. There’s an order counter, with a few tables in the front of the space and a few running along the side. Nothing fancy.
A menu board mounted on the wall has clear instructions for anyone untrained in ordering Mexican street food: “Pick an antojito [e.g. taco, gordita, torta], choose a filling or topping, place your order and enjoy it!” That last instruction feels more like a demand. “Enjoy it!” It’s confident and assertive. And it’s exactly the kind of unpolished phrasing that reminds you that the place is run by real people, not corporate robots programmed to smooth over any rough edge.
A small sign by the register informs patrons that masa-dough dishes are made to order, so these items might take more time to prepare. Sold.
We watched while they scooped out masa from a bowl, balled it up in their hands, and slapped it onto a press. The freshly flattened disks were tossed onto a flattop grill along with various fillings and prepared right in front of our eyes. It was not unlike watching short-order cooks at a diner go about their work. Except that instead of sausage and eggs, it was carne asada and chicken guisado being slung around the grill.
And the portion sizes? Let’s just say they lived up to the name. There was barely a sliver of plate visible under our food. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
It’s worth reading the handwritten signs taped to the counter at Gorditas el Gordo. You can ask for pineapple with your al pastor, and certain dishes are made on the fly from an imposing masa dough ball behind the counter. Cues like these are suggestions from the house to the customer, and we followed them.
The lightly fried shell of the Gordita Pollo Guisado ($6.25) was made as we watched, and it was tender and crispy, with an admirable chew. The chicken itself was moist, if mild, and it helped make our gordita an agreeable dish, nourishing and mellow.
We ordered our Huarache al Pastor ($6.25) with the optional roast pineapple add-on, and we’re glad we did. It brought a pleasant, smoky sweetness to a dish that already leans in an earthy, tender direction. Huaraches (masa shaped into oblongs that resemble the sandals they’re named for, and fried) tend to be balanced, soft-spoken dishes, and this one was no exception.
Our Taco Asada ($2.10) was a bit dry and underseasoned, but the accompanying onions added some much-needed earthy, snappy, savory depth. — James Norton
Taqueria El Chilo
311 E Lake St
We saw disco lights and heard the faint rhythmic thumping of Mexican music from the street. The volume rose to a wince-inducing nightclub blare the instant we opened the door. We half expected to find a dance party in full swing. Instead, the place was deserted aside from a few employees, a couple of seated diners, and a guy with empty plates of food in front of him, chin on chest, napping at his table. It’s like we arrived at the wrong end of a party, where the only people left were those who couldn’t leave.
The space is divided into two distinct parts.
On one side is a well lit walk-up order counter with menu boards containing prices and the requisite pictures of tacos, sopas, alambres, etc.
On the other side, within the darkened, disco-lit room, is the restaurant seating. Wooden chairs are painted in purples, greens, yellows, and oranges, with flowers stenciled along the edges. Tables are covered with bright floral oilcloth. Paintings of famous Mexican musicians — specifically Jenni Rivera, Joar Sebastian, and Selena — hang on the wall. There’s a dance floor and a DJ booth toward the back of this room. (We later found out that the restaurant apparently draws big crowds on the weekend with live DJs and karaoke. So be prepared if you’re planning a visit.)
The guy behind the counter welcomed us with a big smile. We asked what we should try. His response: “One of everything.” While we appreciated his confidence, we decided against his advice. We landed on a few items, and added a couple of cervezas (perhaps subconsciously induced by the party music and lighting). — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Once you emotionally move past the dark, throbbing, empty dance-club atmosphere of Taqueria El Chilo and get to the food, you realize that you’re in the right place after all — the limited menu concentrates on simple foods that the staff cooks surprisingly well.
Take the Grilled Chicken Plate, for example ($6 for a quarter of a chicken, $9 for a half, $18 for the whole bird). It’s nothing fancy, but the chicken is beautifully grilled with tender meat and crispy charred skin, the ham-enriched baked beans taste like they were made in house, and the rice is nicely cooked, making for delicious chicken tacos when you combine all of the elements in one of the provided tortillas with either the (hot) green salsa or the (very hot) creamy green salsa that comes on the side. This hearkens back to the food at Pollo Movil in Lake Plaza, and says to us that when in doubt at a Mexican-American spot, order the roast chicken.
The Pozole Rojo ($8) is one of those dishes that hinges on all the pieces on your tablre coming together into a glorious whole. The hot, spicy, meat-laden soup is a little oppressive by itself, but drop in one of the crispy fried tortillas loaded up with sour cream, cotija cheese, and lettuce, and you have a crispy, crunchy, creamy, fully loaded soup experience. The beauty of the Pozole Rojo at El Chilo is doubled because it comes with two loaded-up tortillas, so you can freshen up your soup halfway through the dining experience. This is a lot of fun for eight bucks.
The Taco al Pastor ($2) at El Chilo isn’t our favorite on Lake Street (see: La Hacienda, below), but it’s good. There’s a nice char on it, and a lot of meat, plus a lingering heat that works well with the dish as a whole. — J.N.
Cafeteria Las Tapatias
301 E Lake St
The space was simple and sparse and brightly lit, with a few tables scattered about. Each table was topped with a salt shaker and one of those iconic red squeeze bottles that dispensed, not Heinz, but some kind of tongue-blistering, electric-red hot sauce concocted by El Diablo himself. (Or maybe it was just Salsa Valentina.)
A half-wall set off the kitchen and prep area in one corner of the space. A lineup of pineapples, bags of pinwheel-shaped chicharrónes de harina, and a few potted plants decorated the ledge around the top of this wall.
Tall wire shelving behind the wall held such varying restaurant supplies as industrial-sized bottles of lime juice, plastic dome lids, and, appropriately enough, a giant box of Alka-Seltzer (just in case you go too heavy on the previously mentioned devil sauce).
The menu board, like those at many other places we’ve visited so far, had pictures of food items right next to the name, which in some ways works better than any description you could conjure. Especially in the case of something like Chicharrónes Preparados (we’ll get to that momentarily).
There was something of a language barrier in ordering, which, frankly, we took as a good omen. And indeed, it turned out to be so. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Las Tapatias is one of those places where there aren’t prices on the menu, and everything on the menu is not necessarily on the menu. So we can tell you that we paid $15.50 for dinner (minus the chicharrónes, which were bought by a friend) but not exactly what everything cost.
About those Chicharrónes Preparados — they’re pretty amazing. You’d think a dish of pickled pig skin atop fried flour made to look like fried pig skin (chicharrón de harina) would be tough or greasy or heavy, but this stuff is as light and refreshing as a cool breeze in August. It’s all about the lettuce, sour cream, cotija cheese and avocado atop the feather-light chicharrón de harina. It’s a crispy crunchy romp of a dish.
It’s hard to explain why the Jamon Torta works so well, but maybe it’s because it’s so light on its feet. Sure, it’s ham, bread, and cheese, but the bread is light and delicate, the ham is thinly sliced and not particularly greasy or salty, and the cheese is similarly retiring and mellow. Add a bit of acid pop from hot peppers and you’ve got a really tasty classic sandwich that won’t slow you down.
Our Licuado Fresa (strawberry and milk smoothie-thing) is one of the finer licuados we’ve had, and we’ve had many, many licuados over the years (mostly at late-night Mexican joints in Madison, Wis., after dropping the student paper off at the printer’s). It’s a really simple version of the beverage — little more than frozen strawberries blended with milk — but the resultant frothy liquid is refreshing and delightful.
Our Tamale Pollo Rojo was moist, packed with a large but reasonable load of pulled chicken. It possessed a mild but lingering heat that set off the sweet, natural taste of corn that served as the backdrop for the whole performance. It was one of the better tamales we’ve tried in the metro, although the ones at Valerie’s Carniceria will always have our hearts. — J.N.
Taqueria La Hacienda
334 E Lake St #101
Right away we noticed a large spit of marinated pork — layered with onion and topped with a pineapple — spinning slowly behind the counter. Of course, a giant meat tornado tends to get your attention. Especially one with that unmistakable orange glow. Tacos al pastor. Once you’ve seen them, in all their glory, there’s no escaping their clutches. Or maybe it’s just us.
Taqueria la Hacienda resides in a freestanding building, tucked back off Lake Street, with its own small parking area. The entrance, with its stone and stucco facade and iron embellishments around the windows, almost puts off a suburban chain vibe. And the interior, with its predominately beige and brown color scheme and newer digital menu boards, perpetuates the feeling.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
There are three locations of Taqueria la Hacienda, and success has earned them a slightly slicker presentation. The space is large and bright and clean and perfectly comfortable. And the food, especially the tacos al pastor, is more than worthy. If you’re looking for a less dive-y way into the East Lake Mexican food scene this is a worthy place to start. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
For years, we’ve been sending people to Taqueria La Hacienda for the Tacos al Pastor ($2), and we weren’t disappointed with this visit’s rendition. The taco meat, which comes off a gyro-like spit (no accident, since tacos al pastor have their origin in the Middle East), is diced finely. Similarly diced are the lightly grilled onions and the cilantro, making for a surprisingly consistent mixture that is offset beautifully with a squirt of lime juice. The onions do a lot of the work, but the meat has a delicious char to it, and the texture and flavor combination is impeccable.
Also good, and something we hadn’t tried before: the Taco Arabes Asada ($2.85), which is like a mini-burrito — a folded tortilla stuffed with melted cheese, carne asada, and lightly cooked onions. The balance of ingredients is excellent, and the overall flavor has a lot of rich smokiness and a distinct taste of crispy onions.
Our Carnitas Taco ($2) was just fine — mellow and comforting, but relatively unremarkable.
We finished up with a slice of Tres Leches Cake ($3.79), and we were a bit disappointed (unfairly so) that it couldn’t hold a candle to the dense, beautifully rich specimen that we fell in love with at 112 Eatery many years ago. Still, the Hacienda version is fine. It’s tall, light, quite delicate, and just splashed with a hint of the rich milkiness that gives this cake its reason for being. — J.N.
330 E Lake St
The sign outside features an illustration of an anthropomorphic torta and a burrito walking arm in arm, looking all too happy to be on the menu. The slogan under their name is “Porque un plus siempre es mejor.” “Because a plus is always better.” Which, rationally speaking, is hard to argue with.
It’s small inside, with room for only a few booths and tables. Bright yellow walls are stenciled with sayings like “Don’t dream your life, live your dreams” surrounded by floral borders and the random butterfly decal.
On one wall there’s a drawing of the iconic, winking “Bon Appétit” chef you typically find on pizza boxes. Which somehow feels both out of place and right at home here. Pineda packs a lot of character into its small footprint.
A man who seemed to be either an employee or a regular customer of the tattoo parlor next door was waiting for his order. We suspected he had also enjoyed a cervesa or two, because he seemed, shall we say, extra merry (also, we saw him mooning people inside the tattoo parlor through the front window). He sang a little as he waited, and when he was on his way out the door, we overheard him say this was the third time he’d been here today.
“I’m gonna go broke,” he joked.
We’ve always thought a great dive joint is one that both reflects and adds to the character of the neighborhood. By that standard, Pineda is a great little dive joint. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The best thing about the food we tried at Pineda Tacos is that it’s evocative of American truck stop diner food. And the worst thing about the food that we tried at Pineda Tacos is that it’s evocative of American truck stop diner food. It’s rich, it’s greasy, it’s salty, it’s satisfying, and it’s a punch in the gut. Everything about the decal-bedecked, brightly lit, fast-food feel of the interior tells you that what you’re about to receive isn’t haute cuisine, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Take, for example, the Hawaiian Torta ($8.19). Grilled ham and pineapple are usually the tastes that dominate this dish, but at Pineda, this is a sandwich that revolves around what must be four or five entire hot dogs that get sliced up to fill the space within the massive roll that holds it together. With the addition of acid and heat plus the crunch of lettuce and tomato, you’re basically looking at three (maybe four) Chicago dogs packed together into one massive sandwich. This is pretty much a gold mine if you’re in a Chicago dog mood (and potentially disappointing if you were looking for something like the Hawaiiana from Manny’s Tortas). There’s not much in the way of charring or toasting to give this dish texture, so it’s pretty consistent and determinedly hot-dog-centric.
The Alambres Carnitas ($9.10) consisted of some large but hard-to-determine number of corn tortillas covering a plate, and a massive pile of ground meat, green peppers, and melted cheese covering those tortillas. A few stray radish slices were thrown in for color, but they weren’t numerous enough to really change the impact of this dish, which is salt, grease, and earthy solidity in equal portions. — J.N.
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