We found ourselves eating something called Magic Salsa on a stale piece of bread in an unlit corner of a gas station. And we couldn’t believe just how lucky we were to be there.
For this stretch of the Central Avenue Checklist, we were supposed to meet at the Hill Valley Cafe. A couple of us arrived early and found a sign in the darkened window informing us they were closed for winter hours (for reasons only a quirky, neighborhood cafe can get away with in May).
Given this kink in our plans, and with an extra few minutes to kill, we took the opportunity to make sure the Chilean Corner Deli in the Now & Later Food & Fuel was open. On our initial scouting run a few months back, it was closed. And it was difficult to tell if the place was ever open.
That’s when luck found us. Or we found it. We ran into the owner of the Chilean Corner Deli. Another couple of minutes, and we may never have met him or been able to try his Magic Salsa. (More on that below.)
Luck seemed to be with us through the night. Sometimes in the surprisingly good food, but also in the stories we now have to tell.
This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, James Norton, Becca Dilley, Stephanie March, and David Friedman.
Read the other installments of the Central Avenue Checklist here: Paradise Biryani Pointe to Flameburger, Dong Yang to Big Marina, New York Gyro to Jimmy’s Pro Billiards, El Tequila to The Heights Theater, The Chilean Corner to El Taco Riendo, the Bakery Edition, Hill Valley Cafe to Ideal Diner, Al Amir Bakery to Fair State, Pico de Gallo to Arcana Lodge, Karta Thai to Tattersall Distilling, Little India to 612 Brew, and Narobi to the End of the Line.
Chilean Corner (closed) at Now and Later Food and Fuel
2951 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 1.9 miles from Broadway Street
The deli case was dark. In place of food, stainless steel restaurant supplies and food pans were stacked up behind the glass. A menu board above told us this used to be the Chilean Corner Deli. Now it was just a dark corner of the Now & Later Food & Fuel.
We found the owner, Luis, packing up the restaurant for good. When we expressed our disappointment, he told us that if construction on Central ended and things picked up, he might be back. But for now, Luis said, he’s been forced to try something new. Or in the parlance of a Silicon Valley startup, he was pivoting. On the suggestion of his friends, he started selling his Aji Pebre — dubbed Magic Salsa by customers — at the Minneapolis Farmers Market on Saturdays.
He claimed the sauce has eleven kinds of peppers. And apparently, it’s flying off the shelf. Luis was so proud of it that he insisted we try it before we left. He scrounged up a day-old loaf of bread, cut off pieces and spread the salsa in a thick layer on top. The bread disintegrated underneath the weight of the peppers and liquid, forcing us to stuff the entire mass into our mouths in one bite.
Aji Pebre is not subtle. It’s a bright and spicy relish with enough garlic to ward off vampires blocks away. We assumed the “magic” refers to its versatility. And like any great condiment, it would do as well adding some zip to a hot dog or a burger as it would adding a bit more interest to a sandwich or wrap. — M.C. Cronin
Jeff’s Bobby & Steve’s Chevy Grille
3701 Central Avenue NE, Columbia Heights | 3.1 miles from Broadway Street
The food was about what you’d expect from a gas station, maybe better. But the real treat came while we were waiting for our dinner.
The cook told us to check out the Coca-Cola memorabilia museum on the second level of the convenience store. “It’s rated something like seventh in the world.”
Seventh in the world? Really? The first thing we thought was, How are these things ranked? The next was, This we gotta see.
We wound our way through the racks of snack chips, headache remedies and automotive lubricants and headed upstairs.
It’s pretty much everything you’d expect to see in a Coca-Cola memorabilia museum plus a thin layer of dust. There’s no rhyme or reason to the layout. Not that there should be. It’s a hodgepodge of antique Coca-Cola paraphernalia: ads, metal trays, signs, bottles, etc.
But there was also a large office tucked in the corner behind a toddler play area fenced in with child safety gates. We spotted an older gentleman in the office, and he spotted us right back. We told him what we were up to with the Central Avenue Checklist, and he waved us through the safety gates (which were there for grandkid-wrangling purposes, according to our new friend).
When we asked him about his Coca-Cola obsession, the man leaned back in his chair and started telling us about his collection. He pointed to random framed Coca-Cola art on the wall, making sure to tell us what each piece was worth. “That one there is worth ten thousand … That over there is worth thirteen thousand … I have a tray at home worth over a hundred thousand.”
We stopped him and asked the obvious question (obvious to us at least): “Are you Jeff of Jeff’s Bobby and Steve’s?”
He smiles. “No. I’m Bobby.”
When we started this adventure we never imagined ourselves talking to Bobby of Bobby & Steve’s about his world-renowned Coca-Cola memorabilia collection. But that’s luck for you. Or is it just being open to making your own luck? — M.C.
The phrase “gas station fare” sums up the food portion of our visit to the magical world of Jeff’s Bobby and Steve’s. Although its plating and pricing suggested a fast-casual restaurant, the Chevy Grille’s food came in a distant third behind the gas pumps and the Coca Coca memorabilia in terms of care received.
From OK to worst: There was nothing terribly wrong with our two-piece fried chicken dinner ($7), but there was nothing particularly right about it, either. The consensus was that it was strongly reminiscent of the rewarmed, not-terribly-crisp stuff you’d get at a Cub Foods deli. The accompanying biscuit was “OK,” according to my notes, but even that modest praise sparked spirited infighting — some tasters detected artificial butter and deemed it a disgrace. We all agreed that the toast that accompanied our meals was the high point, as it was crisp and the bread had some soulful flavor to it.
The low point may well have been the steak from our $8 steak and eggs dinner. Our tasters summed it up as “mealy,” “woody,” “sawdusty,” and “overcooked — possibly many times.” It’s fair to say that the approximately $6 steak delivered around $6 worth of steak value, give or take a couple of bucks.
And our chocolate malt ($3.25)? Drinkable. — J.N.
Karta Thai North
3800 Central Ave NE, Columbia Heights | 2.7 miles from Broadway Street
Don’t be confused by the ice-cream sundaes etched on the booth dividers, Karta isn’t some kind of exotic Thai ice-cream parlor. (Though their Thai iced tea is a cold tasty treat and one of the best versions of the stuff we’ve ever had.) No, it’s just that this used to be a Bridgeman’s. And once you realize this, it’s somewhat difficult to forget. We should’ve known from the distinctive shape of the building and exterior sign. Yep, Bridgeman’s all the way.
The place was built to accommodate hordes of people, though it was fairly quiet on the night we visited. It’s essentially one large, open room with tables and chairs lined up through the center. A long wooden bar runs down one side. The aforementioned booths run along the other. The walls are bright, contrasting planes of solid color: lime green, royal blue, orchid purple, terracotta red. Other than that, there’s not much to it.
While we waited for the food, we noted handmade soap carvings for sale. Royal Orchid had them as well. We asked about them, and found out soap carving is taught in schools in Thailand from the time kids are 11. So your soap carving purchase may be helping to provide pocket change for some budding young artist.
Our server thought one of us was someone named Tom who apparently had some beef with Karta on Facebook. She was clearly concerned and wanted to make it right. We assured her no one at the table was this Tom. And though we’re not sure she ever fully believed us, it was nice to see she cared. — M.C.
Karta Thai North was a bit of mystery from a food perspective. With the exception of our beverages (more on them in a moment), there were no clean hits and no clean misses. We found a lot to like as well as nits to pick.
But first: we have found the global ideal for Thai iced tea, and it lives at Karta Thai North. Our tall, slim glasses glowed in sleek tones of orange and tan, and the flavor was balanced perfectly. We’re used to the “tea” part of Thai iced tea being trampled beneath the hooves of the aggressively thick and sugary condensed milk, but this stuff was surprisingly bold and tannic, making a bright, refreshing drink we raced to finish.
We found our Thom Yum soup ($8.50 for a large portion) to be overly salty, although it had a zesty, aggressive sour note that we all appreciated. Our mushrooms were added (literally) as an afterthought, so they were a bit raw. And then, like magic: with the addition of an accompanying hot pepper paste, the soup came together. The punch of heat helped the other elements align.
A Yum Neua salad ($8) featured unappetizing-looking boiled beef that was actually quite tender and savory. A strong onion kick and tart dressing tied it together.
Our spring rolls ($4.50) were dominated by strong highlights of fresh mint, and were otherwise mild and agreeable.
And our Pra-Rham Karta Special curry ($9) was, well, not particularly special. It featured an off-the-rack peanut sauce that dominated all of its other elements, including broccoli, cabbage, and carrots.
Finally, our Thai Custard with Sticky Rice ($3.50) looked like a bit of a car crash and tasted something like a sweet potato or pumpkin pie. Not bad, but not a fair match for the Lebanese Night at Basha. — J.N.
2851 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 1.8 miles from Broadway Street
Whenever we have talked about the Central Avenue Checklist, whether online or among friends, Chimborazo has consistently had the most outspoken advocates. “Have you been to Chimborazo?”…“Can’t wait until you get to Chimborazo”…“You’re gonna love Chimborazo.”
Frankly, it was getting a bit worrisome. What if we didn’t really enjoy it? In our experience, restaurants that are most strongly buzzed about can often be the most disappointing. Expectations are just so high.
But the comments we were hearing went beyond buzz; this was pure love. And for a restaurant to continue to have this kind of loyal following after six years in business, well, there must be something to it.
All this is to say, trepidation and expectations were high for those of us who had never been to Chimborazo.
The night we visited, it was jam packed. The main dining area is intimate. Tables are crammed in every nook and cranny. (Warning to claustrophobes: You may bump elbows with diners at neighboring tables.) But much of the charm of the place has to do with the energy that comes from forced close quarters. And for all its lack of space, it’s surprisingly comfortable.
Maybe it was the hearty comfort food or the hand-chalked menu boards or the small personal photos of Ecuadorean culture and animals and landscape dotting the walls, but it felt as if we were part of a special gathering of family and friends. And we imagine this is exactly why so many people have come to love Chimborazo.
So a note to everyone who insisted we would love Chimborazo: Yep, you were right. — M.C.
There’s something about the food at Chimborazo that makes me want to throw my pen at the wall and give up. It’s not that it’s bad — it is, in fact, across-the-board excellent. But all of the dishes we ordered felt like brothers and sisters to one another: over and over again we tasted bright kicks of cilantro, crispy starches, tender notes of vinegar and lime, and properly prepared, tender meats and seafood.
We tried the Ceviche de Camarón ($10.50), and thought the shrimp perfect, an unusual occurrence in a world where they so often lie mournfully on the plate, stale and rubbery.
The Saltado ($11) featured marinated and stir-fried tender beef with peppers, onion, tomatoes, and crisp French fries to boot. And the Ecuatoriano Vegetariano ($10.50) was filled with a variety of treasures, albeit fewer than we’d hoped from the menu’s description (there was a bit of a plural-singular problem going on — we got only one delicious llapingacho.)
Like Basha and Dong Yang, Chimborazo knows where it’s coming from, what its toolbox of flavors and textures contains, and how to use everything it has at its disposal. It’s a culinary highlight on a street that’s full of noteworthy stops.
And get the limeade if you like really bold flavors. It’s asskickingly strong. More than one of us ordered it, sipped about 25 percent over the course of the meal, and felt as though we’d consumed two. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing, and it’s definitely a bold thing. — J.N.
El Taco Riendo
2412 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 1.1 miles from Broadway Street
The logo is a crudely drawn rolled tortilla with a mustache and a big toothy grin. This mustachioed tortilla dude also has arms and legs and appears to be in full sprint. Presumably, this is to indicate that El Taco Riendo offers quick service. Which it does. But while the logo is kind of weirdly funny, it’s also just kind of weird. Which means it does a fairly decent job of representing the experience at El Taco Riendo.
Case in point: they offer a $24 torta. That’s right, a $24 sandwich. OK. Sure, the sign says it feeds three to four people, but still, that’s kind of weird, right?
They also have something called the Big Burrote. When we asked the guy behind the counter just how big it was, he pulled out two Frisbee-sized flour tortillas, set them side-by-side on the counter, overlapping slightly, and looked up at us as if to say, “I dare you to order this.” We estimated that, once filled, the Big Burrote would be roughly the size of a newborn baby. So we didn’t dare.
Don’t worry, they do have regular sized food, too. And most of it was pretty darn good. There are even helpful pictures of many of the popular items above the counter. You order, tell them your choice of meat, then indicate the toppings you want as your food slides down the counter toward the register.
El Taco Riendo combines this familiar quick-service setup with all the off-kilter charms of an independent business: handwritten signs, mismatched tables and chairs, decorative display of sombreros, conch shells, and pottery sitting on artificial turf.
Weird. But weirdly fun, too. — M.C.
Maya Cuisine has been sucking up all the glory for Mexican food on Central Avenue, but El Taco Riendo deserves several hearty shouts as well. Our round of tacos ($2.35) ranged from strong to excellent — our taco al pastor was underpowered compared to the superb version at Taqueria La Hacienda on East Lake Street but would do in a pinch. The Asada had a super-steaky depth that made it ravishingly good. And the Tinga de Pollo featured a comforting burn of heat, and a smokiness that made it irresistible.
Our pork tamale ($2.40) was as good as we’ve had anywhere — tender, gentle, smoky, and mellow; we could’ve eaten a pan-full.
And our chicken torta ($7.35) was a wonderful mix of creamy mayo and cheese, smoky Tinga chicken, sweet fluffy bread, and acidic pickled jalapeños. Everything worked as a package deal, and while it lacked the subtlety of Manny’s gourmet version of the sandwich, it would absolutely do in a pinch — or otherwise. — J.N.