The intersection of Nicollet and 38th Street in Minneapolis has become one of the buzziest and busiest spots in the local food scene. In 2011, the post-fire reopening of Blackbird heralded a new era, and the change has been mostly positive (RIP Shorty and Wags) thanks to Five Watt Coffee, Kyatchi and most recently Nighthawks. But behind the buzz, Cinco de Mayo Mercado (3733 Nicollet) has been humming along, a neighborhood mainstay since 2006. And if a recent lunchtime stop is any indication, business is booming.
Cinco de Mayo is a full service Mexican grocer with a selection that would put the “ethnic foods” aisle at most mainstream grocery stores to shame. Colorful piñatas hang from the ceiling, and a dessert case beckons immediately when you walk through the door. The store is compact and well stocked, but what brings us in is the deli (and a chance to see if our high school Spanish is still rattling around the old brain pan).
On any given day, they might be serving chiles rellenos, carnitas, guisados (stews, which on this day were pork or chicken in arbol and chicken in mole), steak, tamales, rotisserie chicken, refried beans, rice, cheeses, guacamole, and salads — all sold by the pound. They also make their own chips and corn tortillas. There are no tables, only takeout. For $40, we walked out with enough food to feed a family.
We got three tamales ($2.29 each), one each of chicken, pork, and vegetarian. The dough was creamy, sweet, and pillowy. It stole the show from the filling in each case. We liked the shredded chicken in mild green sauce and were surprised at how good the vegetarian was, filled with chewy cheese and vegetables. We were less impressed with the pork in red sauce. The dough was rich enough without the fatty pork.
The carnitas ($8 / lb.) are a must-have. From a dish of large chunks of roasted pork, the server pulls off smaller pieces in a demonstration of meaty tenderness. The aromatic meat, with its browned and crispy edges, is marbled throughout with thin layers of fat, and the result is succulent and decadent.
We ordered three stews: the pork and the chicken in arbol chile and the chicken in mole (all $6 / lb. or $8 for a meal with beans and rice). The meat is stewed bone-in, and the sauces had an incredible depth of flavor. The arbol chile stews were bright and piquant. The pork had an underlying spiciness that built to an almost punishing level; the chicken was much milder. The mole had a hint of sweetness and a rich, not quite bitter coffee flavor. Despite a plentiful amount of sauce (almost a paste, it was so thick with spices), the chicken was a tad dry. Our tasters agreed that the mole was unlike any previous version of the dish they’ve had.
From the cold side of the deli, we ordered a block of queso fresco ($5.50 / lb.), which tasted like a lightly salted sunny day and crumbled beautifully over the tacos we assembled from our haul. With vivid green cilantro, the pico de gallo ($4 / lb.) was a fresh addition to the tacos. The impossibly creamy guacamole ($5 / lb.) never made it to taco time. It was devoured with the crunchy, salty chips ($4.50) while we opened up the rest of the containers.
Cinco de Mayo’s tortillas ($2 / dozen), are scene-stealers, much like the tamale dough. Chewy, soft, and still warm, they didn’t need a quick trip to the grill for softening.
“How many tortillas do you sell each day?” we asked. “All of them,” the woman behind the counter replied. So get there early, or you’ll have to go back tomorrow. Then again, you’ll probably want to go back tomorrow anyway.
Cinco de Mayo Mercado
Mexican market and takeout deli
3733 Nicollet Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55409
Owner / Chef: Jorge Rangel Castro / Valeria Garcia
Hours: 7 a.m.-9 p.m. daily
Vegetarian / Vegan: Yes / Ask
Entree Range: $3-$8
Parking: Small lot, street