So we’re driving down East Lake Street looking for something to eat, openly hoping the itinerant chef who schleps tacos out of the back of his minivan will be out.
At the stoplight on 11th Avenue, we notice a small group of people gathered around a red utility trailer, the kind of thing sprinkler system installers and HVAC guys haul around behind their full-size pickup trucks. We drive by slowly, rubbernecking to gather more intelligence. We see the word “Antojitos” emblazoned on the side of the trailer, Spanish for street food. This is promising. Then we see “elote,” “gordita,” and “mango on a stick,” and we’re pulling over. This is no utility trailer. This is Doña Lety, and it’s got to be the tiniest food truck in Minneapolis.
Located on East Lake Street between 11th and 12th avenues, Doña Lety is that increasingly rare discovery that cannot be Googled. Nor can you follow her whereabouts on Twitter. And she most definitely does not have a Square Reader. Instead, you find her the way people found street food before the Internet – by actually walking the streets. In our case, by driving them. But whatever.
While it’s easy to fixate on the size of this diminutive kitchen, what’s even more remarkable is that Doña Lety has been serving up authentic Mexican street food on this very block for 13 years. Which is to say that she’s pretty much a neighborhood institution – a reliable, daily purveyor of small bites at small prices where modesty and tradition trump flair and technique.
The menu, like her trailer, is small. But it’s also varied.
We start with what everyone around us is eating – elote ($3). Corn on the cob smothered in mayo, rolled in crumbly, dry, and salty cotija cheese, and spiked with a liberal dusting of a Mexican chili powder called Tajin, which is both spicy and sweet and leaves your lips tingling in a pleasant way. The corn is a touch overcooked, but it’s big and sweet and meal in itself. If you have an aversion to eating food on a stick, order ezquites ($3). It’s all of the above served in a Styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon.
The gordita is prepared the traditional way with chicharrón, or fried pork rind, and topped with sour cream and shredded lettuce and served in a thick, lightly griddled corn tortilla. If you’re used to having your proteins piled high, you’ll be disappointed here. While the amount of chicharrón is certainly not overwhelming, it’s just enough to give the gordita a satisfying salty crunch, without rendering the other ingredients entirely irrelevant. And at $3 it’s an absolute steal.
Slushies are also popular here, and by “slushie” they mean shaved ice with flavored syrups. There are a dozen flavors or so, but Sophie, the proprietor’s daughter, recommends the tamarindo. It’s topped with a few tamarind fruits Doña Lety has shipped directly from Mexico. It’s kinda sweet. Kinda sour. And definitely cold. If you just want a taste, order a small for a measly buck. It’s worth it.
The highlight, though, is the mango-on-a-stick ($4), which can be ordered plain or picante. But you definitely want to order yours picante. The huge, perfectly ripened mango is peeled right before your eyes, drizzled with fresh-squeezed lemon, seasoned with a couple pinches of salt, and then coated with the aforementioned sweet / spicy Tajin chili powder. Then it’s sliced to resemble a pretty orange flower. A really big pretty orange flower. But the real beauty is the flavor: sweet and spicy, fresh and juicy, this thing is absolutely delicious and is capable of transforming your entire worldview on eating fruit. Tip: Ask for a couple extra napkins and dig in.
Compared to the downtown food truck scene, which can feel bourgeois with its fawning hoards of business-casual cubicle workers earnestly Instagramming the latest must have new item, Doña Lety is decidedly more homespun and down-to-earth. It’s not where people go to eat something exotic and new; it’s where people go to eat something familiar that tastes like home, or the idea of it.
Yes, the food truck scene certainly merits the accolades and bright lights. But Doña Lety is proof that great performances do also occur out of the spotlight.