East Lake Checklist: Ibrahim Restaurant to Las Mojarras
We’ve seen our share of oddities on our checklist outings. Of course, that’s to be expected when you’re visiting smaller, often family-run businesses that live a little off the radar. But occasionally you see things that are so strange you just can’t seem to shake them. The mental image haunts you, popping up at the most random moments, forcing you to smile and shake your head in wonder all over again.
In the case of this outing, we were gifted with two such images. One was a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe containing a handmade crucifix where the body of Jesus was fashioned out of forks, complete with a ribcage represented by meticulously rolled metal tines. The other was a diorama featuring a life-sized Santa Claus mannequin sitting upon a throne surrounded by fluffy cotton snow and wrapped presents. Given the season, this would have been totally fine — quaint, even — except the entire scene was cordoned off with yellow caution tape as if Santa were the central figure in a crime scene investigation.
We won’t tell you exactly where we saw these things. That would be too easy. Instead, we’ll leave you to find them. Just follow in our footsteps. Even if you never actually find fork Jesus, we promise, the journey will be worth it. — 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.”
1202 E Lake St, Minneapolis
A younger man told us to sit anywhere. There were a few tables scattered about, but we squeezed into one of the smaller booths. A moment later, an older man appeared, wiped off a slightly larger booth, and insisted we take it. He was gregarious, with a charming smile and a fatherly presence that told us he wouldn’t be denied. So we acquiesced.
There was no menu. Instead, the younger man offered us something called a Sport Plate. We went with it. There’s something kind of nice about being told what you’re going to eat every once in a while. And to be honest, the more exotic the cuisine, the more inclined we are to let those with more experience take the lead.
A few men were gathered at other tables. They hung out, eating and chatting and tapping at their cell phones. It felt like a ritual. A post-work stress reliever. A parallel world to a group of dudes gathering for a brewski at the sports bar after work. The primary difference being that here the TVs weren’t tuned to a bunch of knuckleheads yammering on about fantasy sports. They were tuned to a bunch of knuckleheads analyzing the news of the day on CNN.
As it turned out, the older man and the younger man were father and son — and owners of the restaurant. The father came out carrying our Sport Plate. He stopped about five feet from our table, showed off the plate to us, and in his best dramatic voice said, “You want some real fire?” He was proud to bring this food to our table.
When a restaurant owner approaches patrons with that potent a mix of confidence, humility, and humor, the food doesn’t even need to be that great to make the experience memorable. Fortunately, the food delivered. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We always do our best to explain the cost of food at various restaurants, but when it comes to the East African-focused Ibrahim Restaurant, here’s what we’ve got, via our receipt: “Manual Transaction: $32.” There are no menus, and no prices posted on the wall. Ordering is less about selecting items and more about talking with your waiter about what you want while you slurp the unexpected but excellent chicken, corn, and onion soup spritzed with a bit of juice from a sliced lime.
For $32, our party of four had a feast. First, the soup. Then, hot tea with milk and spices, one of the better chai-like beverages we’ve had. Then, an appetizer plate: a spongy sweet bread that was eerily similar to Swedish pancakes, a soft roll with the eggy sweetness of a Hawaiian bun and the texture of a beignet, and a sambusa.
This sambusa was one of the best we’ve had. Full stop. Exterior: chewy and crunchy. Filling-to-crust ratio: perfect. Filling: deeply spiced, nicely minced, with a lingering, balanced heat.
The main course included a starch platter (we got a 50/50 mix of elegantly cooked fragrant rice and lightly vinegared spaghetti) and a meat platter with three meats. We chose the barbecue (chicken), the chicken steak (aka chicken cutlet), and the goat.
The dishes came with an optional ranch dressing (for the salad and barbecue), and two house sauces: a green herbal sauce and a pasty red hot sauce that is one of the strangest things we’ve ever tried. For a full fifteen seconds after you eat it, it has an almost jellylike sweetness. And then, the burn. It’s the slowest delay on a hot sauce that we’ve ever experienced, and it’s a total kick.
We liked all of our meats. The barbecue was flavorful but dry, but easily awakened by any of the sauces. The goat was perfectly done — not gamy, and not sinewy, but tender and earthy. And the chicken steak was tender and beautifully spiced, the crown jewel on the plate.
Plus, of course, bananas. To say that this meal was a good value for $32 is a radical understatement. It was a feast, and the warm hospitality sealed the deal. — James Norton
Que Chula es Puebla
Food Truck (generally around 1116 E Lake St, Minneapolis)
We stamped our feet and warmed our hands with our breath and waited for our food. It was a cold night. The woman and man running the place wore down vests and stocking caps. Their coordinated jockeying in the small space of the food truck was clearly earned with practice. Spend enough time cooped up together and you learn to anticipate each other’s moves.
As food trucks go, Que Chula es Puebla has plenty of charm. It’s painted a bright shade of avocado green. The logo on the front door is made up of a flat, almost South-Park-esque, illustration of a woman standing in front of a snowcapped volcanic mountain with the words “Authentic Cuisine of Puebla” just below her. They advertise “We Catering” on the side of the truck with a phone number just below it — just enough of a grammatical slip to underscore the authenticity, in case you doubted it.
Slinging street food on a sub-freezing night in Minnesota takes dedication. It’s a testament to how far our food-truck scene has come. It wasn’t long ago that we didn’t even have these trucks. Heck, it wasn’t long ago that various styles of Mexican food were lumped together as generic “Mexican.” Now we have semi-permanent food trucks serving up regional Mexican cuisines deep into the winter months. If we could just get the feeling back in our fingers. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The thing to get at the Que Chula es Puebla food truck is the Cemita ($8.50), a sandwich of flat-pounded meat and lettuce served on a massive, round sesame-seed roll. We got ours with a breaded beef cutlet that was roughly the size of a Frisbee but tasted considerably better. There’s not a ton of nuance to the sandwich, but there’s something about a comforting slap of carb (roll) on carb (breading) on protein (beef) that is perfect for standing around outside in 10-degree weather on a Thursday night on East Lake Street.
We also tried a couple of the tacos ($2) — asada and carnitas — and they were standard issue for Lake Street, tender and mild, ready foils for lime wedges, chopped onions, and hot sauces. — J.N.
Super Mercado Morelia
1417 E Lake St, Minneapolis
We’ll get to the deli in a moment, but first, let’s talk about the market. This place is amazing. The meat case alone is worth the visit.
There are mounds upon mounds of bulk carne asada and al pastor just sitting there ready to feed a party of 500 to 1,000 people. Then, there’s the surprisingly long pepper aisle. (It’s the aisle that’s surprisingly long, not the peppers. Though there are more than a few long peppers.) And don’t forget about bulk bins filled with tamarind pods and dry beans. Need a six-foot-tall stalk of raw sugar cane? Yeah, they’ve got that.
The deli area is sectioned off in a back corner of the market. There’s a small case and counter along with a smattering of tables and a large wooden hutch. Staring down from the wall is an iconic mural depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe that seems copied directly from the side of a tall, glass devotional candle.
An older woman brought out our food and then proceeded to open a drawer in the hutch and pull out silverware for our meal. At that moment it was hard not to feel as though we’d been transported to our grandma’s house. And the theme continued with the food. You don’t have to know the name of the dish you’re eating, to know when you’re eating a home-cooked meal.
The best detail, though, was the tablecloths, which were printed with a repeating pattern of coffee imagery (beans, grinders, mugs) along with the word “Coffee.” But barely noticeable, and also printed in a repeating pattern, was the phrase “sample text.” These cloths were clearly purchased because they were a bargain.
For every chef-driven restaurant with every detail down — every tablecloth perfectly matched, every candle thought out, every napkin placed just so — there are grandma-driven places that exist simply to make home-cooked meals for friends and neighbors. Whether it’s being served on Main Street USA or the back of a super mercado, you know soul food when you taste it. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Super Mercado Morelia is, like other grocery store restaurants we’ve tried on East Lake Street, sort of an enigma. There’s a window from a small, improvised dining room into a little kitchen, there are various dishes kept warm in chafing dishes, and navigating from square one, to food on the table, to check paid takes a bit of effort and whatever Spanish you can muster.
With some difficulty, we managed to order just one dish of chicken (not four) from the team working the market restaurant, and it was as homespun as you can possibly imagine, right down to the abuela serving it up — rice, beans, tortillas, and a tender roast chicken with vegetables, all with a nice salt and heat to it, as comforting as it gets. Ten dollars for the plate seemed perfectly reasonable to us.
The flan we grabbed from the rotating case ($3) wasn’t bad, but we can’t help but think of the perfect specimen we had at Homi back on University Avenue. This version was a bit too gelatinized and a bit underflavored but was better than some of the straight-from-a-mix versions we’ve tasted at other spots. — J.N.
1511 E Lake St, Minneapolis
How would you imagine a place called Taco Taxi to look and feel? Yep, that’s pretty much it. Yellow. And lots of it. With a few Checker cab patterns sprinkled about.
Going along with the taxi theme, the space is functional and built for service. It’s long and narrow with a few tables. You order at the front counter and you get to watch as they prep and cook your food to your liking. They chop meat and sling tortillas around the grill like pros.
And like any great cab driver, they quickly take you to your chosen destination. Which in this case happens to be the corner of Tasty Taco Lane and Big Burrito Avenue. The person behind the counter was confident that we’d be happy with our meal. And as it turned out, his confidence wasn’t just for show. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Taco Taxi knows tacos. You’d hope as much, but they really do. The tortillas, for starters, are some of the tastiest we’ve tried on East Lake Street, which is saying something. They had an almost buttery richness and a pleasant, supple texture.
All three of the varieties we ordered — asada, al pastor, and lengua ($2 each) — were satisfactory. The lengua’s mellow earthiness may have made it our favorite. The asada was a mild, salty treat, and the al pastor had a smoky onion thing going on.
The Mexican Asada Burrito ($7.75) is the second-best burrito we’ve tried on this crawl. It’s the “steakiest” steak burrito we’ve ever sampled, with a cranked-up umami that made it craveable. The only thing we missed — and the reason Taqueria Victor Hugo is our number one burrito stop — is a core of crunchy vegetables and sour cream to balance out the meat and rice that dominate this dish.
Our tacos and burrito came with an unusual watery, speckled salsa that might best be described as “umami” — a real blast of richness evoking roasted onions that enhanced the already smoky/salty thing going on with most of our dishes. — J.N.
1507 E Lake St, Minneapolis
The walls are littered with fishing nets and wooden captain’s wheels and fish sculptures and images of seaside villages. There’s an aquarium and a humongous mural of an equally humongous cruise ship. As with Taco Taxi, there’s no beating around the bush when it comes to the theme. In this case, it is clearly seafood. After all, the place is named for a common Caribbean fish.
The space itself feels like it’s built for events. It has an almost arcade-shop vibe. There’s a large central hall with high ceilings and a stage at one end. (The night we visited, a few kids were rehearsing their dance moves.) Off to the side is a large curving bar bathed in bluish nightclub lighting. There are multiple connected rooms that look as though they could be divided up into separate event spaces using partition walls. There was a karaoke setup, too.
If we’d visited on a Saturday night, something tells us, the place would be packed. But the night we visited, there wasn’t much happening. So we had plenty of time to try to follow the plot of the steamy Telenovela playing on the TVs. It seemed to revolve around every main character engaging in a torrid affair with every other main character. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Our waiter at Las Mojarras complimented our choice of the Piña Rellena de Mariscos ($18), half a pineapple carved out and filled with a warm mixture of cream cheese, shrimp, crab, and calamari. We were heartened by his endorsement, because frankly, the dish looked eccentric, but it had the “grab life by the ho-jos!” sort of enthusiasm that can lead to great things. But the finished product — a warmish soup of white sauce covering mildly flavored lumps of semi-identifiable seafood — was in the realm of the Crazy Curry Noodles of King Thai. Too much dairy, too much salt and garlic powder, not a great deal of anything else. And the actual pineapple, which might have brought a welcome zing of acid and sweetness, was utterly missing in action.
We also got a Mojarra Frita ($10 per pound), a dish that we figured was a lock. It’s fried. It’s priced by the pound. It’s highlighted in red at the top of the appetizer section of the menu. It’s THE NAME OF THE RESTAURANT. And it wasn’t too bad — an aggressively cooked fish with a decent level of salt, a bit dry, but for all the flash of the whole-fish presentation, far less challenging than its pineapple-based neighbor on the table.
Our margaritas (we tried lime and strawberry, and our non-itemized receipt doesn’t say how much they were, but we’re guessing about $6) were good for their ilk, which is to say they were not terribly alcoholic, powered by sour mix as opposed to tequila, and made to be slurped down rather than sipped carefully. They weren’t overly sweet and didn’t have any of the aggressive chemical flavors that often kill this variety of margarita, so they were OK in our book. — J.N.