East Lake Checklist Revisited: Mercado Central to Charito Panaderia

Photos by Becca Dilley (except Charito photos, which are James Norton) / Illustrations by WACSO

Our path for this outing took us by the 3rd Precinct and the remains of the businesses nearby. It’s still impossible for us to pass this area and not flash back to the images, sounds and emotions that permeated the atmosphere over those few days in May.

But along with those images come more hopeful images of people converging in the aftermath with brooms and bags and helping hands to begin the healing process. The hurt and significance of what happened there will never be forgotten, but as new buildings and businesses emerge, we hope we’ll one day be able to celebrate the institutional change and opportunity these events spawned.

Meanwhile, there are some resilient people doing great things with food who need our attention right now. So let’s get back to our regularly scheduled gorging, shall we? – M.C. Cronin

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.”


This week’s Checklist Crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, Becca Dilley, James Norton, Josiah Norton.


East Lake Checklist Revisited is an illustrated travelogue dedicated to documenting the changes on this major Minneapolis artery after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the damage done in the wake of the George Floyd murder.

We’ll publish four- or five-restaurant installments monthly until we’ve revisited or explored every nonchain spot on East Lake Street between 35W and the Mississippi River. (We’re estimating 20 new spots since our original tour in 2018, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)

The Best Tacos Del Sol (at Mercado Central)
1515 East Lake Street, Minneapolis

The arched order window in the midst of the action of Mercado Central is a portal into a small but mighty Mexican street food kitchen. There’s a beauty in small kitchens. A natural efficiency to the placement of things and the way people move around each other. Necessity has eroded the inessential.

In this case, two people were running the operation. There was a palpable sense of familiarity and cooperation between them. We imagine it was earned from time spent navigating a tight space together. Not to mention navigating the ups and downs of running a restaurant during a pandemic. – M.C.

Tacos al Pastor at Best Tacos Del Sol in Mercado Central***Food Notes***

If you miss the superb tacos al pastor that you used to get in Mercado Central at the now-departed La Hacienda outpost, here’s your substitute. Earthy, rich, mellow, moist, and gently charred, this is pork al pastor the way we like it, and piled reasonably high in the tortilla to boot.

Our Asada Tacos  were a bit too mild and a little too greasy for our taste, but an East Lake Street “6” on a 1-10 taco quality scale is an 8 just about anywhere else in the state, so we’ll take ’em.

Sincronizada at Best Tacos Del Sol in Mercado CentralBut our Carnitas Sincronizada was just stellar – this toasted, quesadilla-like dish has serious Cubano vibes, with the ham plus pork plus melted cheese thing going on. The only thing missing were some thin slices of pickled jalapenos, which would have brought welcome heat and acid to the party. Even without that kick, the sincronizada was sheer comfort, a south-of-the-border spin on a grilled cheese that will befriend and charm just about anyone who isn’t keeping kosher or halal. – J.N.

(Total bill, before tip: $24. No prices on menu, receipt non-itemized.)

Zero Degrees (at Mercado Central)
1515 East Lake Street, Minneapolis

You can’t miss Zero Degrees in Mercado Central. Just look for the bright pink wall and the sign with a sugar cone smack dab in the middle of the number zero. It’s hard not to smile at such a clever name for an ice cream and snack shop. Of course, the mere notion of visiting any ice cream shop is scientifically proven to elevate the mood. Do we not all scream for ice cream?

But there’s also the salty snack side of the menu here. On the surface there doesn’t seem to be a straight line from ice cream to the wild concoction that is Dorilocos, but who are we to argue? Straight lines are boring. Look, the point is, Zero Degrees is clever name. Maybe, we should just move on. – M.C.

Tostilocos at Zero Degrees in Mercado Central***Food Notes***

Without particularly meaning to, we’re slowly becoming dorilocos connoisseurs (or, more realistically, “somewhat dorilocos aware.”) The dorilocos we tried a couple years ago at Lake Plaza (now Plaza Mexico) were a barnburner of intense sour, spicy, sweet, and tart flavors. The ones we tried a few weeks ago at the new stand-alone La Michoacana shop were surprisingly mild and restrained in flavor, but a crunchy barnstorming adventure of texture.

And the Dorilocos at the Zero Degrees ice cream shop in Mercado Central were … well, a completely different animal. There was real heat, thanks to Hot Takis and hot sauce, and an almost salad-like aspect thanks to shredded lettuce and crumbled cheese. A lack of Japanese peanuts or tamarind reined in the textural contrast or sour qualities that these snacks sometimes have, but there was a solid vinegar kick to the overall package. In short: good, complex, snackable, and once more a completely different flavor journey than our two previous dorilocos tastings.

Manzana at Zero DegreesWe also tried the shop’s Ensalada de Manzana, a Cool Whip-meets-apples-meets-raisins-meets-wafer-cookies sort of ambrosia situation that we haven’t really seen elsewhere on the street. It was an unexpectedly familiar trip to a family picnic for most of us, and was absolutely enjoyable for what it was, which is to say a Midwestern salad by way of a Mexican ice cream shop.

And our chocolate ice cream (in a cone, with sprinkles), tasted like chocolate ice cream.  – J.N.

(Total bill, before tip: $14. No menu, receipt non-itemized.)

Taqueria las Cuatro Milpas
1526 East Lake Street, Minneapolis

Cuatro Milpas has something to say. “Make tacos not walls” is the slogan on their awning outside. It’s a display of both good-humored resistance and business acumen, as the sentiment seems popular enough with patrons to warrant a place on their merch (T-shirts and aprons with the slogan are available for purchase).

The corner space is bright and cheerful. Windows on the south and west sides allow sunlight to fill the room. The walls are painted in bold, contrasting panels of black, red and green. And a row of agua frescas machines creates a waterfall of color at the front counter.

A map of the Zacatecas state in Mexico is painted on one wall with the city of Jerez de Garcia Salinas highlighted. The connection of a restaurant to a specific place in the world always adds dimension to their story. In this case, the region is known for a specific cuisine: birria. (Zacatecas borders the state of Jalisco where the dish originated.) And based on our experience with their version, we might humbly suggest Cuatro Milpas consider adding another slogan to their T-shirts: “Make birria not walls” – M.C.

Cuatro Milpas exterior***Food Notes***

It’s not surprising that East Lake Street, which caters assertively to working class immigrants, would be one of the best places in the metro to pick up a killer sandwich. During our last outing, we got a Philly Steak sandwich at Hayat that bore only a passing resemblance to its namesake but was ravishingly good nonetheless.

Birria at Cuatro MilpasIn this outing, we tried the Torta Birria ($9.75) at Cuatro Milpas and absolutely loved it. Its tender, crackling bread soaked up the saucy stewiness of the sandwich’s richly flavored beef, and cilantro and avocado helped contribute herbal flavor and creamy intensity. As is: a solid sandwich. With the accompanying pickled jalapeño, which brought a crucial infusion of acid and heat, a modern classic.

Burrito at Cuatro MilpasOur Asada Burrito ($9.50) can’t beat its colleague over at Taqueria Victor Hugo, but it was good nonetheless – tightly rolled in a snappy tortilla and packed with authority and firmness, it leaned on properly cooked whole beans and a fair amount of rice to offset the meat, lettuce, and cilantro with creamy ballast. (Editor’s Note: If you’re one of those people who reflexively squawks about rice in burritos, I’m begging you to email me a well-supported column explaining your reasoning, as seasoned rice is a) delicious and b) constantly packed into burritos by people who very much seem to know what they’re doing.)

Aguas fresca at Cuatro MilpasCuatro Milpas has an amenity that few of its competitors on East Lake Street offer: A veritable wall of aguas frescas and licuados. We tried three of the former ($4 each for medium cups) and absolutely adored them.

The Sandia (Watermelon, above left) was as natural as could be, almost like drinking a barely sweetened and only slightly concentrated interior of a fresh summer melon.

Piña (Pineapple, above right) led with a surprisingly refreshing cucumber overture, and was neither too sweet nor too syrupy, as many pineapple drinks tend to be.

And the Pepino Con Limon (Cucumber-Lime, above center) is, hands down, what I’ll be driving to East Lake Street for the next time we get a 90 degree day around here. (So, next July.) It’s criminally, shockingly, offensively refreshing, one of the most gorgeously poundable beverages discoverable by humanity. – J.N.

Charito Panaderia Ecuatoriano
1611 East Lake Street, Minneapolis

Make no mistake, this is a panaderia. In fact, if you’re not careful, you might stroll right into the walk-in baking oven, which rather than being tucked out of sight in the kitchen, is on full display in the front of the space.

Also, lovingly on display here are a hypnotic array of breads, cookies, cakes, pastries, donuts and other delights. All the usual bakery suspects. Plus, just as you’d expect from any self-respecting bakery, you can order pork ribs. Wait…what? Yes. Don’t be fooled. There’s much more going on in this bakery than meets the eye.– M.C.

Entrees at Charito Panaderia***Food Notes***

Charito Panaderia Ecuatoriana is one of the most unusual spots we’ve eaten at on Lake Street, and we’ve been to a number of unusual spots. This sister enterprise to a Central Avenue panaderia is a fully operational Ecuadorian restaurant, offering favorites like papipollo (fries and chicken), tigrillo (pork skin mixed with fried eggs), and mote sucio (boiled corn mixed with pork butter), but it’s also an amply stocked bakery, offering a good many more options than the typical metro-area Mexican bakery.

We ordered the Sancocho (pan-fried pork ribs with a side of boiled hominy) $12, and found it both satisfying and puzzling. Satisfying, in that the pork ribs were beautifully fried to a crisp and crunchy state of textural tastiness. Puzzling, in that the pork had little flavor beyond salt and heat, and the hominy was stark to the point of culinary nudity. An accompanying spicy red salsa helped at a little acid and heat to the dish, but it remained austere.

The Bolon de Verde ($6.50) was a similar story – the same pork ribs, this time accompanied by a veritable starch bomb of a fried green plantain topped with an exceedingly mild cheese.

Key de Vainilla at Charito PanaderiaThe bakery side of Charito is more consistently impressive. For a staggeringly reasonable $4, you can pick up a Key de Vainilla (vanilla cake) the size and nature of a generous homemade pound cake, its vanilla-dominated flavor profile beautifully boosted by an aggressive payload of orange zest.

Budin cake at Charito PanaderiaAnd a thick, richly spiced piece of smooth-as-silk Budin (pudding) cake will set you back $2 while offering a good $6-7 of flavor and pleasure. We barely scratched the surface of this bakery, which was swimming in promising baked goods, many of which were beautifully frosted and piped and all of which were remarkably affordable. – J.N.