East Lake Checklist: Lake Plaza
These checklists are going to kill us. We’ve had guns pointed our direction (Central Avenue Checklist) and eaten warm pork intestine atop a cosmetics counter (Green Line Checklist). And that was just on the first outing of each series. But, ever-looming peril aside, the months that followed were filled with interesting people, peculiar foods, and that seductive gamble of risk versus reward that kept us coming back week after week.
God help us, we’re addicted. So we’re gathering up our intestinal fortitude and plowing forward on a new stretch of road. Call us masochists.
The first crawl of each of the previous series did a decent job of setting the stage for what was to come, and the opener of the East Lake Checklist did not disappoint. It started when we discovered a rip in the fabric of the time-space continuum at 417 East Lake Street. One second we were strolling down the sidewalk just blocks from I-35W; the next we opened the door of Lake Plaza and were instantly transported to a flea market on the outskirts of Mexico City.
This wasn’t some manufactured “Mercado Experience”; it was the real deal — a labyrinth of claustrophobic stalls filled floor to ceiling with an eclectic jumble of stuff. To help paint the picture, here’s a non-comprehensive list of items you can purchase at Lake Plaza: a giant speaker embedded with flashing disco lights, underwear (non-sexy), underwear (sexy), a bottle of aspirin, bedazzling western boots, a statue of Jesus Christ, a storage unit, a fluffy pink Quinceañera gown, a rug, a wig, computer repair services, 12-inch square sheets of fried pork skins, and Minions-themed perfume for kids.
As you might expect, the food court at the heart of Lake Plaza wasn’t like any you’d find at the mall. Yes, there was the typical open seating area filled with families dining over trays they’d carried to their tables from the surrounding food counters. But this food court was made up entirely of Mexican eateries. No Panda Express in sight.
We approached every order window, purchased some combination of whatever the person behind the counter suggested and/or whatever sounded interesting, and hauled tray after tray back to our table to devour. At one point, we caught a family gawking at our pile of of discarded dishes. The mom asked what were we doing. We explained our plan to eat at every restaurant along East Lake Street. She smiled and nodded at us in a way not dissimilar to the way you might smile and nod at your great-uncle with dementia. It’s a look with which we’ve become all too familiar.
About halfway through our visit we realized we hadn’t ordered a taco yet, which was an oversight we decided to make purposeful. After all, finding a place you can try so many authentic Mexican dishes without resorting to a taco makes a pretty great story. Besides, if they do other things well, a taco should be child’s play.
From chicken joints to popsicle stands, from house-made cantaloupe water to handmade tortillas pressed before your eyes, the range here astounds. That there’s not just one, but two places serving Dorilocos — a food item that defies logic by its very existence — tells you everything. (We do our best to describe a Doriloco below, but be warned: Trying to wrap your head around a Doriloco is like an infant trying to comprehend quantum mechanics. This thing is a drunken Tijuana bar bet meets a Guillermo del Toro fever dream. It’s not meant to be understood.)
By the time we were ready to leave, our area looked like the aftermath of a food fight in a school cafeteria. Tiny bits of food shrapnel and piles of balled-up napkins littered the table. Our hands and faces were sticky and stained. We might’ve been embarrassed if we weren’t just too damn happy to care. — M.C. Cronin
It’s difficult to believe that we’ve started three of these culinary travelogues, but they seem to have a momentum all their own.
Once you start really walking a street like Central or University or East Lake, it’s difficult to stop. You’re conscious of traveling — actually traveling, minus the airfare — within your own city, and that feeling is disorienting and intoxicating.
As a food writer, my primary goal in these series is to honestly document what we smell, touch, and taste. It seems simple in the abstract, but when you’re looking at a mass of notes incompletely describing dozens or hundreds of new experiences, it can be overwhelming.
As much as we can, over the course of this journey down East Lake Street, we will write (and draw and photograph) to document the experience without exoticizing or condescending or simplifying or euphemizing. Our goal is to be travelers, not tourists, and to try to see what we see (and taste what we taste) in a worldly, compassionate, and enthusiastic way. We can’t wait to get started, and we’re looking forward to bringing you along on the trip. — James Norton
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 Visit Lake Street.com.”
Lake Plaza, 417 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Pollo Movil’s Half Roast Chicken ($14) is robustly grilled. There’s a smoky, carbony thing going on that isn’t quite barbecue but imparts some similar depth and savory deliciousness. The chicken had an overall dampness that reflected an unfortunate gap between the charcoal grilling and the bird hitting the table, but it was an easy problem to fix — the sides of picante sauce, rice, and a super spicy souplike dipping medium all played beautifully with the meat and allowed for a fully customizable dining experience. This dish is more of a combination: The diner can add heat, creaminess, or neutral starch at will, steering the meal in many directions.
We loved our Pina Colada Loca ($3), which, strictly speaking, was actually pretty thoughtfully composed and reasonable, particularly compared to some of the other things we would eat later in the evening. This non-alcoholic pineapple slushie was sweet but not overly so, with a bit of tamarind astringency and some chili powder to bring a savory heat to the pineapple slices on top of the beverage. — J.N.
We’ve never had a Pambazo ($8.80) before, but we may well return for one when the temperature dips below freezing. The sandwich is a dreadnought. It’s a salsa-dipped potato and chorizo sandwich famed as a street food in Mexico City, but it tastes like a distant cousin of a Cornish pasty, what with the meat-and-potato-and-bread robustness of the thing. An accompanying (extremely) hot sauce is at the ready for diners who feel that the whole starch plus meat thing is getting a bit too earthy.
The Pozole at Los Portales ($10.60) is a classic specimen — pork and hominy and peppers and garlic, hot and earthy, and intensely soothing. It comes with a couple of crispy tortillas laden with lettuce, sour cream, and avocado, all of which can dive into the soup to diversify its flavor. Two people could comfortably lunch off of this deep bowl of soup, and given hearty appetites and chilly weather, they’d lunch happily as well. — J.N.
In terms of food, Don Chilo might be the strongest contender that Lake Plaza has to offer, and there were plenty of good contenders on hand. The single most astonishing thing we ate (also in contention: the Dorilocos, see below) was the Quesadilla de Flor de Calabazas ($8*). The tortilla was made on site and then filled with a combination of two cheeses, squash blossoms, mushrooms, onions, and peppers. It was chewy, tender, gooey, earthy, full-flavored, and downright elegant.
The house-made Cantaloupe Water ($4) of Don Chilo is one of the best things we’ve drunk in 2017, and it would absolutely crush at the State Fair. It’s refreshing, it’s fully flavored without being pulpy or oversweet, and it’s the perfect antidote to all the fat and heat that other dishes at Lake Plaza offer up in copious globules.
Steak Picaditas ($10) is a remarkably fun dish. Little bits of full-flavored and surprisingly tender steak are scattered atop sour cream bedecked sopes, making for a mix of savory, creamy, and chewily bready flavor. Had we not been on a hell train to food city, we would’ve folded these up and demolished them. As it was, we were painfully aware that we had seven different establishments to try in this single food court.
*There were no prices on the menu, and so we took a guess at the numbers here. We may be a bit off, item by item, but the total is correct. — J.N.
We were losing steam by the time we got to El Mexican, but we gave it a shot, sampling their Torta Hawaiiana ($10, $11 with fries). This is a bigger, greasier, more punishing torta than the usual we’re well familiar with at Manny’s, and it probably outweighs the Manny’s version by a good 8 ounces, with most of the difference probably in the hot-dog-like sausage pieces crammed into the sandwich to reinforce and support the pounded pork patty that makes up the heart of the dish. Although it’s a blunt force instrument, it’s nicely made and well proportioned, and could comfortably feed two. — J.N.
Lake Plaza, 417 E Lake St, Minneapolis
So, the Dorilocos ($6). OK. Let’s see here. So, you get a bag of Doritos. You rip it open and add some combination of: lime juice, hot sauce, jicama, mango, pineapple, cueritos (pickled pig skin), chile powder, and “Japanese peanuts,” which are peanuts battered and deep fried. Stick in a straw wrapped in tamarind. Dig in! It’s chips! It’s hot sauce! It’s pickled pig skin! It’s sweet. It’s spicy. It’s earthy. It’s pickled. It’s just about everything possible, and literally a bag of chips. Words like “good” or “bad” or “tasty” do this cross-cultural mashup no justice whatsoever. It’s an experience.
It’s also a fascinating cultural touchstone. Doritos are a traditional Mexican food that was abducted and industrialized by an American corporation and then reclaimed and reinvented on the streets of Tijuana as a hard-charging indigenous snack. Eater has a great essay on them — their roots and their many, many varieties — that will likely be one of the most interesting things you read about food this week.
On the other end of the spectrum — same restaurant, mind you — COMPLETELY on the other end of the spectrum, we got one of the housemade popsicles made from whole strawberries and cream ($3). So sweet, so simple, so natural. A thing of beauty. Not to take it back to the State Fair, but these things would CRUSH at the State Fair.
OK, back toward the middle of the spectrum — well, closer to the Dorilocos than the popsicle — lies the Mangonada ($5.50). It’s a fruit drink, yes, and based on mangos, but the addition of tart and salty chamoy sauce, lime juice, and chili powder makes this a full-on sweet-tart-savory collision, boosted yet further into the realm of entertaining conflict by the addition of an astringent tamarind straw. — J.N.
Lake Plaza, 417 E Lake St, Minneapolis
We did not fully understand what we were getting into when we ordered the Molcajete de Carne ($35) off the no-prices-featured menu at Puerto Veracruzano. It turns out that what we were getting into was about three pounds of grilled meat plus a roasted jalapeño, grilled cactus, and grilled onions. Everything was good to excellent. The chicken was tender, juicy, and stellar overall, totally enjoyable by itself. The pork was a bit dry, but full-flavored, the steak chewy but richly flavored, and the cactus perfectly wilted with a bit of an al dente center. The dish comes with a pile of corn tortillas, rice, and beans, meaning that you can go straight after the meat or compose something like an improvised taco using the copious ingredients on hand. The sheer volume of this single entree makes it enough for four hungry people, or six looking to share a substantial snack. — J.N.
Lake Plaza, 417 E Lake St, Minneapolis
The Flan at Vikky (the dessert wing of Don Chilo) was a mere $3, but it tasted like a straight up Jell-O mix-job, not holding a candle to our local favorite (the house-made stuff at Homi).
But the Mangonada ($3) was fascinating. This edition of the sweet/hot/salty fruit treat was frozen in Popsicle form and served in a self-sealing cup that collects a rich, sticky nectar as the treat melts. You’ve got to steel yourself for bold flavors, but this is a dessert with a lot to say. — J.N.