It’s generally known that New York City has a killer dining scene, but the reason for that reputation is often misunderstood. It’s fine to have Le Bernardin and its ilk weaving gossamer tapestries of haute cuisine for the one percent, but the real beauty of the city is all the small places that focus on tiny corners of the food world. The confidence to do a few things well — or one thing well, for that matter — inspires love, and it generally means that diners get impeccable value and a consistent experience.
A willingness to serve fewer things — and do a much better job of it — has been blossoming in the Twin Cities, and we’re all eating better for it. Focused restaurants like Revival, Sassy Spoon, Brasa, World Street Kitchen, and Hello Pizza are pointing their firepower at where we have the most room to move forward as a food culture, and it’s a glorious thing.
Add to the list Cafe Racer Kitchen, now open the in former Donut Cooperative / Cliquot Cafe space in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. This food-truck turned bricks-and-mortar operation is slinging a remarkably short and simple menu. As a diner, you choose from pulled chicken breast, pulled pork, or roasted vegetables, and then choose a serving style (salad, arepa, or naked) and sides. Or you choose from among a braised chicken, a marinated skirt steak, or a Colombian street hot dog. That’s it. When you see a menu this short and unpretentious, you know that someone’s confident that flavor and execution will bring diners back, and Cafe Racer’s got flavor and execution in spades.
This confidence is echoed in the spot’s interior. There’s no Latin American kitsch here, just a clean, chic style that you might see at a modern neighborhood spot just about anywhere from Buenos Aires to St. Paul. Cafe Racer Kitchen lets its modern Latin soundtrack and food do the talking. On that front, the overall message sent by the food is “clean.” There was no grease, little fat, and gentle-but-competent seasoning in all the dishes and sides we tasted.
Our braised pulled pork ($9) came garnished with crisp bits of sweet potato, sriracha and cilantro aiolis, and pickled red onions. We’ve had spins on this dish all over the place, plenty of which were louder, or fattier, or spicier. This one tasted mild, mellow, harmonious, and ultimately pleasing, even more so for the crisp arepa that it was served upon.
On the side, our carrot souffle burst with natural sweetness and a mild splash of melted queso blanco and queso fresco. On a second visit, the souffle was less appealing — dry and one dimensional. But when it works, it works.
The Pollo a la Brasa ($12) was simple as can be — a roasted chicken that featured crisp skin and a tender interior, flanked by sides including black beans and rice, fried yucca (which tasted dynamite when dipped in the accompanying aioli), and sweet plantains. This is classic, healthy, elegant, humble food, and Cafe Racer’s team has the good sense to let it speak for itself without drizzled sauces or fusion spins.
Dessert was the only miss. The restaurant had brought in tres leches cake from an outside bakery, and from the artificial chocolate topping to the unpleasant texture of the cake, it was a discordant final note at the conclusion of an otherwise pleasing melody. Happily, this is the kind of thing that’s easy to fix, either by switching bakeries or — better still — committing to a simple, in-house dessert program.
Over the course of two visits, we found the service warm and attentive (noting and apologizing for the uneaten carrot souffle, for example). At a neighborhood place like this, that attitude will be critical to building the three-times-a-week clientele that can be a life-link during even the toughest times.
Cafe Racer Kitchen is bringing clean, light, affordable, decent food to a part of the city that seems likely to appreciate it (based on its proximity to the Birchwood Cafe and Seward Co-op, for starters). May it (and Brasa, and all their brethren) spawn a hundred more imitators.
Joshua Page contributed to this review
Cafe Racer Kitchen
Latin American street food
2929 East 25th Street, Minneapolis
BAR: None (application in process)
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes
Tue-Thu 5-10 p.m.
Fri 5-11 p.m.
Sat 10 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sun 10 a.m.-3 p.m.