East Lake Checklist: Taqueria Victor Hugo to Safari Restaurant
There’s no out. No option. No standing at the front door, peering inside, and sheepishly deciding “maybe we can skip this place.” No judging by the facade that we know exactly what to expect, so why go inside? For us, that can’t happen. We have to go in.
Every. Single. Place.
And while it can sometimes feel like homework, that’s the assignment. What might you discover when you’re compelled to try a place you might normally pass by? What will happen when you’re forced to go through that front door against your better judgment? Spoiler alert: Sometimes it’s magic. — 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.”
Taqueria Victor Hugo
405 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Cartoon Victor Hugo has a big handlebar mustache and smiling eyes looking out from under his sombrero. He stands behind a giant taco and next to a saguaro cactus — the classic variety you see in almost every Road Runner cartoon — with one hand tucked behind his back and the other waved out, palm open, as if he’s personally inviting us to join him at his restaurant. And we’re happy to oblige.
Taqueria Victor Hugo’s logo on the wall is the dominant feature in the space. Aside from the obligatory TVs playing telenovelas, there’s little else in the way of decor. But between its two-toned orange/terra cotta walls, brick accents, and stamped-metal ceiling, the place manages to have a distinct charm and warmth.
We ordered from — and chatted with — a nice woman behind the counter at the back of the space. While our food was being prepared, she brought us an appetizer of chips and two kinds of salsas. She identified the green salsa as “mild” and the red salsa as “hot.” While this may have been true from her perspective, we’d probably label the green “hot” and the red “don’t even.” But hey, you say tomato, we say tomatillo.
Taqueria Victor Hugo started life as a food truck (still in operation). This bricks-and-mortar space was opened only a few months ago, which may explain the lack of a crowd the night we visited. Clearly, they’re still trying to find their audience on East Lake Street. And hopefully, they will. Because based on our experience with the Carne Asada Fajita Burrito alone, the place should be crawling with people. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
I’m going to take an editorial risk and say that the Carne Asada Fajita Burrito ($9) at Taqueria Victor Hugo may be the best burrito I’ve ever eaten. “Best ever” is not something to be tossed around lightly, if at all, but this burrito was the first thing that we tasted on this leg of the crawl, and I could feel myself wrecking my whole evening by going back for exploratory taste after exploratory taste. This is a meat-and-cheese driven burrito, not stuffed with rice or other filler ingredients, although a lettuce and tomato core helped cut the heaviness of the meat and provide a real counterpoint to the salt and fat of the dish. If this (massive) burrito had been any heavier, or any greasier, or any saltier, it would have been too much. But as it was, it was perfect — substantial, comforting, filling, savory, and compelling.
Victor Hugo’s Tacos ($2.50) aren’t to be dismissed lightly, either. The tortillas were warm and tasted as though they’d been grilled pretty hard before service, with some real texture to them, and all three of the varieties we sampled (barbacoa, chicken tinga, asada) had pronounced onion flavor and a good balance of ingredients. The chicken tinga was surprisingly light and elegant, and the barbacoa had a satisfying sense of charred earthiness. — James Norton
El Chinelo Supermercado
349 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Walking from the front of the store, we passed the deli counter / seating area and wove through the main part of the supermarket on our way to the bakery case. It was a labyrinth of wonders. Every aisle packed with distractions.
We became enamored by the abundance of packaged Mexican snack cakes and cookies and munchies. But there were also the shelves filled with plastic baggies of dried peppers and spices. And there were those barrel-sized “jars” of pickled pork skins (a key ingredient in Chicharrón Preparados and Dorilocos. Decorative mylar balloons in the shapes of stars dangled overhead while we ogled the fresh vegetables and butcher meats.
By the time we arrived at the bakery case, we’d almost forgotten our mission. We tonged a couple of baked goods out of the case and returned to the deli at the front of the store to order a proper meal and to eat the baked dessert items while we waited (because we’re adults, and we’re allowed to do that now).
There’s really not much to the deli. It’s just a counter, a small deli case, and a few tables squeezed in. But it’s perfectly situated to allow you to enjoy the perpetual buzz of foot traffic in and out of the store. To top the experience off, the people that worked here were friendly, helpful and, thankfully, willing to put up with our embarrassing attempts at Spanish. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The menu at El Chinelo had no prices, but for $23 we got a Guisado Plate (Mole con Pollo), a Tamal Oaxaqueño, Chile Relleno, and three soft drinks. The meal also included a stack of what must have been house-made tortillas, which had an almost parathalike layered depth to them, and are certainly some of the most compelling tortillas we’ve tried in the state.
The Pollo en Mole was a nice example of the dish, with plenty of earthy depth to the sauce, and no trace of the sweetness that sometimes creeps, unwelcome, into Americanized versions of this complex dark chocolate- and chili-flavored dish.
Our Tamal Oaxaqueño came wrapped in a banana leaf (a rare departure, locally, from the corn husk packaging that is generally seen), and while the masa was a bit clumpy and dry, and the pork simple and inconveniently served up in one massive hunk at the tamale’s center, it all came together with the addition of a couple of Chinelo’s magnificent house sides.
The first was a spicy, earthy, incredibly pungent oil-based chili salsa, which looked to our untrained eyes more like a Thai condiment than a Mexican one. The other was an almost foamy, light-green herbaceous sauce that brought a kick of fresh, grassy flavor to the party.
Our Chile Relleno (roasted green pepper stuffed with mild white cheese) was, in terms of flavor and presentation, disarmingly evocative of a tempura-fried vegetable, with a similar crispy lightness.
We also picked up a couple of baked goods from the bakery side of the supermercado for $2 each. Our expectations were modest, but the baked goods were modest, too. A fairly dried out, lightly frosted brioche and a phenomenally dry, croissantlike roll coated in sugar, with sugar-cookie dough inside, were both pretty to look at but fairly dull to eat. — J.N.
A & J Fish & Chicken
500 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Sure, you can get A & J delivered. Yes, you could just run in, grab take out, and drive off in only a few minutes. But don’t. At least once, do yourself a favor and stick around awhile.
A & J is the Cheers of fish and chicken shacks. There’s a constant flow of characters swinging in to pick up their orders and fulfill their daily allowance of banter with the guys behind the counter.
Don’t get us wrong; this isn’t some glossed-over sitcom set. The place is loud and brash and as real as it gets. Come in wearing the wrong team jersey? Expect some trash talk. Something wrong with your order? Expect a playful eye-roll before they make it right.
We admit, the dining space isn’t exactly made for lingering. It’s all of about 10 feet by approximately nothing. There’s a service counter and about three booths. The walls are trimmed with framed, wrinkled pictures of menu items, snapshots of friends, and handmade posters expressing more authentically inspiring messages than any Successories item ever did.
The place has a surface layer of scratch. It’s undeniable. But there’s an undercurrent of positive energy running through it, too. It’s a dive joint that does business with love. The very definition of community. Plus, they serve catfish with two slices of white bread in a foam clamshell, the way nature intended. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The Catfish Strips ($5 for a small order) at A & J Fish & Chicken were indisputably well made. They came out piping hot. The exterior coating was crispy and had a beautiful cornmeal crunch to it, and the fish inside was moist and firm. Dipped in the accompanying hot and sweet-and-sour sauces, this is, dollar for dollar, spectacularly enjoyable fish. Killer burrito notwithstanding, this may have been the dish of the night for our group, and we couldn’t stop talking about it.
Our 10-piece Hot Wing meal ($8) was nothing fancy, and we were all OK with that. Nothing more than tender, classic chicken wings fried up crisp and presented in a classic Buffalo sauce with ranch dipping sauce. There were no surprises here, and we demanded none. There was just good eating.
Our four-piece Fried Chicken Dinner ($7) split the table. Some of us hit pieces that were a bit gristly or tough, and some us gnawed the drumsticks with gusto and enthusiasm. There’s no disputing the fact that this stuff is legitimately crispy and savory.
Our 7-Up Pound Cake ($2.79) was also divisive, with two of us detecting an unwelcome air freshener note of artificial flavor, and two of us enjoying this firm, moist, attractively priced slice of pound cake without reservation. — J.N.
Taqueria Los Ocampo
809 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Coincidentally, the first Los Ocampos opened around 2003 in Lake Plaza (which we covered in our first installment). Eventually, they moved, added locations, and evolved into a true success story. We covered the University Avenue location on the Green Line Checklist. At the time, Los Ocampo provided a much-needed salve to one of the most horrifying dining experiences we’ve ever had, and for that, we are eternally grateful.
Unlike that University Avenue location, which is a restaurant and bar, this East Lake outpost is billed as a taqueria offering Mexican street food. The place is set up in true quick-serve style and built for doing a bustling business. They aren’t some one-off, mom-and-pop operation anymore. The booths, tables, and chairs are functional and sturdy and well-coordinated. There are no handwritten signs advertising food specials, only nicely printed posters. To order, you wait in an organized line that flows from the front counter toward the entrance, trying to decide what you want from pictures of tacos, gorditas, and sopes, and on and on.
Walking in, we noticed a sign on the entry door. “Proper Attire is required to Dine.” This was the first indication that they cater to a late-night crowd. The other, perhaps more obvious, clue was the hours of operation. They’re open until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. A person could mow down plenty of antojitos between bar close and 4 a.m. Not that a person would do something like that. It’s just nice for a person to know the option exists, if a person were so inclined. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Experience has taught us that while Taqueria Los Ocampo does tacos well (the asadas, in particular, are no-fail and some of the best around), the big-messy-plate dishes like the Huarachazo ($8) are really where it’s at. Here you get cheese, and meat (carne asada in our case), and pungent epazote, and refried beans, and jalapeños all jamming together in a format that almost tastes like a deconstructed burrito with a bit crunchier texture and far more flavor than your typical pre-hangover fare.
We really liked our Barbacoa Taco ($2.75), admiring the meat’s tender texture, its earthy flavor, and the way the meat was balanced by the cilantro that covered the dish. The flor de calabaza was less enjoyable, as it brought an oily and vegetal taste to the table that none of us cared for; the flor de calabaza quesadilla at Don Chilo in Lake Plaza, with its earthy, oniony, umami-dense richness, is a far better route to go. And our taco al pastor was a bit dry and was heavy on the meat as compared to any other component, but it was tasty enough to finish. — J.N.
3010 4th Ave S, Minneapolis
A heads up to anyone who hasn’t eaten at a Somali restaurant: The bananas and hot sauce that arrive at your table before dinner are not an appetizer. They’re meant to be incorporated bite-for-bite into your meal. Those of us who were uninitiated wondered if the long wait for our food was due to the fact that we hadn’t yet eaten this “appetizer.” Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately?) the more culturally aware minds at the table confirmed that we were just getting slower than average service.
While we waited for our food to arrive, we shared hot tea and took in the atmosphere. It’s a large space with high ceilings and sizable booths seemingly designed to accommodate big groups of friends and family. Plum and yellow walls are adorned with paintings, images, and arts and crafts of Somali culture. All in all, it felt warm and welcoming.
Later in our visit, during a polarizing discussion about the Chicken Fantastic, we arrived at the topic of how ethnic restaurants might best introduce the foods of their culture to an inexperienced American audience. Is it best to find a way to infuse culturally authentic flavors into a more familiar dish (such as hotdish here in Minnesota)? Should you present a more authentic dish just slightly tweaked toward an American palate (“Americanize” it for lack of a better word)? Or do you remain completely true and let the dish speak for itself? There seems to be no single “right” way to do it. As far as the Chicken Fantastic is concerned, you be the judge. We’ll just say that in our experience, menu items with names that contain a superlative are worthy of some amount of suspicion. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Does Safari just send out carafes of mango juice to anyone who walks through the door, or did we somehow make a good impression? We didn’t order them, but we thought this iced fruit juice was delicious. Similarly tasty was the Somali tea ($2.50 for a pot that served five of us), which we got with milk (which also means a fair amount of sugar). While sweet, it had a lovely spiced finish (cinnamon and cloves, perhaps?) that left us smiling after every sip.
Our Sambuzas ($3 for two large pastries) were spectacular. The filling was rich with an intense and welcome blast of onion flavor, and the skins were clearly made with love and care, as they offered a crispy-yet-chewy experience that you don’t typically get when you go with frozen sheets of dough. The accompanying green (jalapeño) sauce looked harmless and herbaceous, but it packed a welcome wallop of heat.
Our Chicken Fantastic ($14) split the table. Very much a play on spaghetti Alfredo, this dish had such an aggressive powdered garlic punch that it put half our table off. The other half appreciated its homey charm and copious cheese, but we all agreed that this wasn’t necessarily the best calling card for Safari to put forth to the general public — it didn’t really show off the depth or strengths of the other, less European-influenced dishes on the menu.
Speaking of which: The Curry Goat ($16) was tender, rich, and delicious when combined with rice, bananas, and the hot, sweet, pungent sauce that arrived on our table before the rest of the food did. This is one of those dishes that is a wonder of sweet and savory and hot and mild, uniting a broad spectrum of flavors into one lovely, coherent whole. — J.N.
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