Black Market StP – Fridays on Isabel Street

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

“I couldn’t complain if I wanted to. It’s Friday, and I’m cooking BBQ,” Robert Lorch-Benysek announced from the step of his large, mobile barbecue smoker. Wearing bright blue rubber gloves and waving tongs like an orchestra conductor, Lorch-Benysek was in the zone. We’d found Black Market StP.

From 5-7 p.m. on Fridays, Lorch-Benysek holds court on Isabel Street in West St. Paul. He tells stories, doles out brisket and pork shoulder, chops and wraps ribs, gives spot tours of the pit, and smiles, ear to ear. Shortly after arriving on a recent Friday evening, we were smiling, too.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

It’s hard not to smile when eating Black Market’s gargantuan, smoky, tender Beef Ribs (above, $25 per rack, aka Flintstone meatsicles) with a side of rich, ever-so-sweet beans and pork shoulder ($10 for beans and pork, $25 for a tin of pork shoulder). Though they look intimidating, the beef ribs are irresistible: Rendered fat melds with rich layers of meat under a candied, crackly outer shell. The combination of textures and flavors makes this not just one of the tastiest treats in town, but also one of the most interesting.

Though reluctant to put aside the first course, we happily dug into a juicy chunk of Beef Brisket ($25, serves a family of four, or so); cooked “slow and low” for 24 hours, the beef was fork-tender, its bark thick and flavorful. This is major-league brisket — a legitimate contender for best in state (with StormKing and Revival on the scene, the Twin-Cities-league competition is suddenly quite fierce).

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Before succumbing to a food coma, we also tucked into Lorch-Benysek’s Baby Back Pork Ribs (above, $25 per rack). Though not as spectacular as the beef ribs or brisket, they still impressed. Black cherrywood smoke deeply penetrated the meat, leaving the brown sugar rubbed pork ribs (served “naked”) sweet and fruity.

Fridays on Isabel revolve around Lorch-Benysek’s smoker, where fellowship is the lifeblood of the weekly event. What beer was to Cheers, barbecue is to Black Market StP: It’s a tasty reason to gather, to swap stories and catch up, and to look forward to the next lively community hangout. Lorch-Benysek’s wife, Jill Moeller, is the Diane to Lorch-Benysek’s barkeep Sam, welcoming newcomers, taking orders and payments, situating diners at a folding table, popping caps off soda bottles, introducing strangers, and answering questions about the food and cooking process. Moeller runs the “front-of-the-house” like a seasoned pro, making everybody feel like a beloved neighbor.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

And like the regulars at Cheers, the locals standing around the barbecue pit on Friday night seem to enjoy each other as much as anything. One young neighbor boy comes weekly for a tin of pork and beans and light chatter with the grownups. A couple whose wedding Lorch-Benysek and Moeller catered arrives and digs into an order of beef ribs. The new groom’s brother is standing nearby, patiently waiting to chat with the tong-wielding chef. The brother owns a local pizza joint, and Lorch-Benysek is smoking a bunch of sausage for him.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

There’s an extremely friendly woman who shows up with a case of King of the North grape juice (named for the grape, not the Game of Thrones character). Lorch-Benysek opens the box like a kid at Christmas and drains nearly half a bottle in one gulp. Wiping the purple nectar from his face, he instructs us to crack open a bottle — the unsweetened, undiluted juice is deliciously intense, and mixed with a splash of sparkling water pairs wonderfully with the fatty brisket.

And then there’s Anna Marie Ettel, who proudly recounts the story behind Friday’s on Isabel. It began when her husband, James (“Jimmy”) Mann, a retired St. Paul cop and community leader who sold barbecue at the Lowertown farmers market, took Lorch-Benysek under his wing. Mann’s barbecue bug proved contagious (see Heavy Table alum John Garland’s excellent article on their relationship). When Mann passed away in 2011, Lorch-Benysek fixed up the mobile pit to carry on their shared tradition of bringing people together through barbecue. Ettel showed us a picture of the two men, laughing raucously in the cab of the truck. It perfectly captured the spirit of this weekly feast.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

When we asked Lorch-Benysek if Black Market’s Friday’s on Isabel continues into the winter, he seemed genuinely confused. Not ending the week with barbecue and friends simply hadn’t occurred to him — rain, shine, or snow. After spending an hour with Lorch-Benysek, Moeller, and their friends, we understood. This is their happy place — and now it’s ours, too.

Black Market StP
Outdoor Barbecue, Fridays on Isabel Street in West St. Paul

207 Isabel St W
Saint Paul, MN 55107
651.560.0227
OWNERS / CHEF: Robert Lorch-Benysek and Jill Moeller / Robert Lorch-Benysek
HOURS: Fridays 5-7 p.m.
BAR: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: No
ENTREE RANGE: $10-$25
PARKING: Street

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table



Heavy Table Hot Five: Oct. 27-Nov. 2

hotfive-flames

Each Friday, this list will track five of the best things Heavy Table’s writers, editors, and photographers have recently bitten or sipped. Have a suggestion for the Hot Five? Email editor@heavytable.com.

shepherd-song-banner-ad-horiz-3The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.

shepherd-song-green-keyline

M.C. Cronin / Heavy Table

1-new - one - hot fiveFried Catfish at A & J Fish and Chicken
File this one under “we didn’t see it coming.” One of our best bites from our most recent crawl down East Lake Street hails from the utterly unassuming A & J Fish and Chicken, which, as it turns out, does some of the best fried fish we’ve tried in the city. The catfish at A & J has the perfect level of crispy cornmeal crunch to the exterior, a moist and tender fish on the interior, and a classic presentation. “Catfish served with two slices of white bread in styrofoam the way nature intended,” as M.C. Cronin wrote in a recent Instagram post. Look for this in our next installment of the East Lake Checklist in a couple of weeks.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton and an Instagram post by M.C. Cronin]

Jane Rosemarin / Heavy Table

Jane Rosemarin / Heavy Table

2-new - two - hot fiveNew York Style Pizza from Broders’
Broders’ pizza brings back memories of the classic slice at the corner pizza parlor. The crust is bubbly and chewy but crisp on the bottom — never soggy in the center as fancier pizzas can be. The sauce is full of flavor, but well-balanced, keeping its garlic and salt in check. We’re always surprised at how thoroughly good this old-fashioned pie is.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Jane Rosemarin]

Ted Held / Heavy Table

3-new - three hot fiveJerk Chicken at Mama Ann’s Soul Food
Mama Ann’s Soul Food (520 Rice St, St. Paul) has a genuine family-run feel, from the 8(ish)-year-old kid behind the counter to the fact that half the sides weren’t yet ready at lunchtime. The jerk chicken is excellent. It’s juicy as all get out, with a hint of smoke, a mildly lip-numbing heat, and a ton of flavor. The enormous portion of on-the-bone white and dark meat is served over rice and with two sides (definitely get the greens). It feels like a great bargain at $10.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Ted Held]

Paige Latham Didora / Heavy Table

4-new four hot fiveGrisette Beer at Shakopee Brewhall
Shakopee Brewhall is the latest brewery to present a grisette, a traditional variation on the saison. The style, named for the gray uniforms of 18th-century working women on the France-Belgium border, is a lighter bodied variant of the better-known style, with yeast-derived flavors of citrus and spice. Shakopee Brewhall opened several weeks ago, and its Zephyr Grisette is wonderfully refreshing and widely appealing.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Paige Latham Didora]

James Norton / Heavy Table

5-new -fiveChicken Pot Pie at Savory Bakehouse
There’s a reason that Savory Bakehouse makes our Hot Five almost every time we visit — the food is made by hand with love and skill, and that always comes through in the flavor. The Savory Bakehouse Pot Pie has a lovely rich gravy that plays beautifully with its flaky crust, which manages the heroic task of being both delicious and durable. Peas, potatoes, and pulled chicken make this a formidable match for our current bout of cold weather.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from an Instagram post by James Norton]



Nose to Tail Cooking: Lamb Head Cheese with Meat from Shepherd Song

Courtesy of Casey Pikula

This story is sponsored by Shepherd Song Farm.

In the Old World, when an animal was butchered, every single part of it was used, leaving nothing to waste. That practice faded away with the advent of modern farming, which produced such bounty that cooks could afford to use only the best parts, tossing away the less-desired cuts.

Whether it’s nostalgia or a desire to waste less, the “nose to tail” movement is coming back in full force. Chefs are embracing cuts that might otherwise go to waste — including the head.

Casey Pikula, executive chef at Stem Wine Bar in Northeast Minneapolis, is one of those chefs. Pikula fondly remembers watching his maternal grandmother making head cheese, a cold cut that originated in Europe, from which her ancestors hailed. Pikula watched in awe as his grandmother split the skulls, boiled the heads, and peeled the meat from the bones, producing a dish he describes as “absolutely delicious.”

Courtesy of Casey Pikula

Before Pikula joined Stem Wine Bar, he was head chef at Red Stag Supperclub. As he brainstormed ways to refresh Red Stag’s charcuterie program, memories of his grandmother’s head cheese came rushing back. Pikula decided to recreate her recipe with a few new twists. Instead of using beef or pork, he opted for 100 percent grass fed lamb from Shepherd Song Farm in Downing, Wis. He infused the head cheese with Madras curry and added pickled Fresno chilies and preserved limes.

It took Pikula 10 lamb heads and two weeks to create four pounds of head cheese, but the labor of love was worth it. When the head cheese made its debut on Red Stag’s charcuterie menu, it sold out instantly.

There are many recipes available for head cheese, but Pikula didn’t use one. Instead, he felt his way through the process, which is documented below to inspire other “nose to tail” chefs to try it for themselves. “I don’t think chefs are really taking the nose to tail movement to heart,” said Pikula. “If you’re not making head cheese, then you’re letting this delicious meat go to waste.”

Pikula is excited to begin his next project, which will soon appear on Stem Wine Bar’s menu: Lamb Heart Pastrami, which uses meat from Shepherd Song Farm. “We offer so much more than lamb chops,” says the owner of Shepherd Song Farm, Judy Moses. “From racks, legs, and ground meat to shanks, organ meats, and heads, we offer a full selection of 100 percent grass fed lamb and goat meat for every recipe.”

Pikula chose to partner with Shepherd Song Farm because of their commitment to traditional, sustainable, and humane farming practices. Shepherd Song Farm’s sheep and lambs live on pasture in the open air and sunshine, where they are 100 percent grass fed. This results in lean and flavorful meat rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin E, and beta-carotene. To place an order, visit www.shepherdsongfarm.com.

Courtesy of Casey Pikula

LAMB HEAD CHEESE
Photos and process provided by Chef Casey Pikula

Ten lamb heads from Shepherd Song Farm were used.

Step 1: The skulls were split and the brain and eyes removed. The brains were reserved for a terrine. The eyes were discarded.

Step 2: A rub was made with Madras curry powder, salt, black pepper, minced ginger, minced garlic, and minced preserved limes that had been created a month or so beforehand. The heads were rubbed with this mixture and left to dry in the cooler for three days.

Step 3: After drying, the heads were simmered in water for four hours, along with aromatic herbs and vegetables, to thoroughly cook all of the flesh, but also to make a stock that would be used later.

Step 4: When the heads were fully cooked they were removed and allowed to cool.

Step 5: The tongues were removed, and all the flesh was stripped from the skulls. The stock was strained and put back on the stove to be reduced to a demi-glace, bringing it down from three gallons to less than a quart. Half a dozen sheets of gelatin were added to the stock as lamb heads do not contain a large amount of collagen as a hog’s head would. This was necessary to form a cohesive loaf.

Step 6: The tongues were skinned and finely diced. They were added to the rest of the head meat along with pickled Fresno chili peppers, very fine preserved lime threads, and the reduced stock.

Step 7: The mixture was put in a pan and pressed with weights overnight. The loaf was pulled from the pan the next day and portioned for service.



Cosmos Brewing of Hugo, Minn.

Rick Didora / Heavy Table

While there are various business models in the growing craft-beer industry, it is unheard of for a new brewery to launch in Minnesota without a taproom. Since taprooms became legal here in 2011, it’s difficult to recall a grand opening of a brewery that only distributed to liquor stores and did not serve its first pints across its own bar.

Cosmos Brewing in Hugo, Minn. is the counter-example. The beer became available to consumers on draft and in bombers late last year. There was a launch party of sorts in December 2016 at Grumpy’s Northeast during which a handful of beers were available on draft and were soon rolled out elsewhere, but the team has no plans to serve out of their north metro location. Instead, they have a wider vision, with out-of-state distribution as a primary goal.

Since the launch, nearly a dozen beers have been released, and Cosmos has begun canning as well. Head brewer Jared Camic trained in England and Wisconsin before founding Cosmos with his business partner, Daryl Bolicek. The two met in the music industry years ago.

Rick Didora / Heavy Table

The initial releases were typical — IPA, pale ale — but Camic doesn’t plan to adhere to specific styles. His recent release is a gose, or German-style ale made with salt and coriander that’s historically on the slightly tart side. The GoseRound is made with wheat, key limes, sea salt, and Indian coriander.

On first sip, the beer is mineral-forward, with a sulfur presence that is slightly strong. The sea salt, while not directly perceived, likely enhances the intensity of the citrus and spice, and the degree of sourness is appropriately low. Unfortunately, the flavors are a bit muddy, with no clear lime component, only a pithy sour note, while the coriander element is oddly sweet rather than serving as a savory and spicy counterpoint. Overall, it was unimpressive with a Flintstones vitamin profile.

Rick Didora / Heavy Table

For a more bitter option, the Double Black Hole hits all of the American black ale notes. An intensely earthy, bitter flavor from Mosaic, Simcoe, and Nelson Sauvin hops persists from aroma to aftertaste, to the detriment of all other flavors. It’s a deep black beer with persistent head, and the high carbonation gives a small amount of buoyancy to what is otherwise a palate-wrecker. There is no malt character to be found.

Crop Formation (pictured top), a wheat ale with basil and wildflower honey, is far more enjoyable. Though it’s only 5.7 percent ABV, it tastes far more substantial due to the combination of honey notes, medium body, and high carbonation. Much of this beer’s favor is fermentation-derived: The yeast character is akin to a saison, with mild clove and pepper notes that underscore the basil.

With a space-themed aesthetic and a location distant from the Northeast Minneapolis beer hub, Cosmos is forging a new path, one that more breweries may adopt, especially those that aren’t interested in running both a brewery and a bar. The downside of regional competition can’t be overlooked, though, with more and more regional brands competing for tap and shelf space. And without a place to visit, the brand loses some of its local loyalty.

Cosmos Brewing 9480 140th St N, Hugo, MN 55038 (not open to the public)



East Lake Checklist: Gorditas el Gordo to Pineda Tacos

WACSO / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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

This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, Becca Dilley, James Norton, Theresa Swaney, Allison Sharkey.

PREVIOUS EAST LAKE STREET INSTALLMENT: Lake Plaza

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.”

WACSO / Heavy Table

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.

WACSO / Heavy Table

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.

WACSO / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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

WACSO / Heavy Table

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.

WACSO / Heavy Table

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.

WACSO / Heavy Table

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.)

WACSO / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

WACSO / Heavy Table

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.)

WACSO / Heavy Table

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).

WACSO / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

WACSO / Heavy Table

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.

WACSO / Heavy Table

We digress.

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.

WACSO / Heavy Table

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 ***

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

WACSO / Heavy Table

Pineda Tacos
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.

WACSO / Heavy Table

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.

WACSO / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table