East Lake Checklist Revisited: Plaza Mexico

East Lake street scene - topper for East Lake Street Checklist Revisted

Photos by Becca Dilley / Illustrations by WACSO

Between a global pandemic, intense social unrest, and heartrending destruction, the businesses on East Lake Street have endured much more than usual market forces over the last few months. Surviving this deluge of distresses requires incredible will, hard work, and let’s face it, wads of cash (uninsured losses along the corridor are estimated at $200 million by the Lake Street Council). And money was something most of these small, family and immigrant-owned businesses generally didn’t have to begin with. Many were under-insured or uninsured. How do you start rebuilding when you can’t even begin to move rubble until your property tax bills are paid? 

East Lake Street covers 3.5 miles, but the road ahead is much longer for many of these business owners. Yet, their persistence is utterly inspiring. As is the outpouring of support from so many (barring a callous few legislators determined to do nothing to help the rebuilding effort).

All that said, it felt like an important and appropriate time to retrace our steps and update our assessment of this still vital Minneapolis artery. We’ll point out those places are still around and those that, sadly, aren’t. And we’ll try some new spots along the way. As always, hoping to experience the immigrant spirit that has always been at the heart of the American origin story. 

PART ONE

Our initial outing took us back to the stretch of East Lake Street between I-35 and 5th Avenue where in addition to the above list of roadblocks, the businesses now have to contend with literal roadblocks. Chainlink-topped road construction barricades leave room for only a sliver of sidewalk for pedestrians on the southern side of the street. To patronize a business here these days, you really have to want it. We do. So we navigate our way to the entrance to Plaza Mexico (formerly Lake Plaza). 
Sabor Ecuatoriano exteriorWe entered expecting to find little in the way of activity. Happily, we were wrong. It wasn’t exactly buzzing, but the mercado was at least moderately busy with Friday lunch business. It was heartening to see the true grit on display here. These business owners aren’t just overcoming challenges, they’re serving up a killer alambre in the face of them. – M.C. Cronin

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

ABOUT THIS PROJECT

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.)

Fondita La Potra

the sense i get from places on lake street
is the food is homemade and made with care.

Fondita La Potra
At Plaza Mexico, 417 East Lake Street, Minneapolis

As we approach Fondita La Potra, a woman chatting at a nearby table gets up. She slides behind counter and pushes a bottle of hand sanitizer forward. A sign of the times.

We ask what we should try. She eyes us carefully and says, “White people like the tacos.” We had to admit, we do enjoy a good taco, but decide on the alambre and the hamburguesa.

James … getting back in the groove

She explains that her food is not like the Mexican food you might find elsewhere. She says her flavors are different, more like what you might experience in a Mexican family home. The pitch is a good one. With any number of places to get Mexican food here, offering something unique is straight-up smart business. – M.C.

***Food Notes***

Fondita La Potra’s competent hamburguesa ($11) doesn’t quite hit the heights of other local spots, most notably Hamburguesas el Gordo – although it packs a respectable payload of pineapple, avocado, and ham, it lacks some of the rich / fatty / salty / overwhelmingly awesome bacon and sauces that can give this dish a serious heft and majesty.

(It does, however, come with a seriously hot charred pepper, so that is both on point and appreciated.)

Its alambre asada ($12), on the other hand, is a thing of resplendent beauty. This massive platter of cheese-smothered tortillas is liberally sprinkled with bits of steak and sausage, plus charred strips of green peppers, piles of sauteed onions, radish slices, cucumber slices, and avocado. It evokes a cheesesteak sandwich but rises above that Philly mainstay in complexity and depth of flavors, and it would make absolutely ideal hangover food… were any of us in a position to be going out, partying, and obtaining hangovers right now.

Las Charolas Mexican Restaurant
At Plaza Mexico, 417 East Lake Street, Minneapolis

Las Charolas occupies a room with an arched ceiling painted like a sunny blue sky with white clouds. Metal cross-braces give the space a miniature airplane hanger vibe. At the very least it feels like Las Charolas missed an opportunity to run with an aeronautical theme. Perhaps hang some model airplanes around. But we digress.

Las Charolas interior

no matter how you spell it, those tacos were good.

A crew of construction workers are gathered at two of the tables—their fluorescent vests covered in grime and sweat. We take this as a sign that the food will be soulful and hearty. A day’s hard labor should be rewarded with a meal of charred meat and onions that can be eaten by hand (freshly sanitized, of course). And if it happens to be quitting time—or at least past noon—why not order up a michelada which the guy behind the counter will happily concoct by hand? – M.C.

***Food Notes***

Tacos, tortas, burritos, and tamales dominate the menu at Las Charolas, but we didn’t make it past the first item on the list. The restaurant’s signage was taco-dominated and a good taqueria is always a find worth sharing, so why not lean into the spot’s apparent strength?

And strength it was: the asada taco that we ordered ($2) was among the best we’ve tried locally, and that’s out of about sixty spots that we’ve personally visited. The key: aggressively charred meat that wasn’t tough, but rather packed a tender richness into each ideally blackened nugget of flavor. The seasoning was aggressive but not excessive, making each bite profoundly flavorful.

Our lengua taco ($2.50) was blander, but still had much to recommend it, particularly when topped off with a dollop or two of salsa and a spritz of lime. The nuggets of tongue meat were tender, and massively rich.

And our taco al pastor ($2) was absolutely worthy of its incredibly competitive field – like the asada, a combination of real char and gently chewy, sizable bits of meat made this taco a playground of taste and texture.

The bartender at Las Charolas puts a lot of time and care into the tamarind-garnished micheladas ($5) that the restaurant serves up, so do yourself a favor and order one. Lime and tomato juices were present but relatively restrained, letting the mellow pale lager do the bulk of the work. This made for a remarkably light and refreshing cerveza preparada. – J.N.

Sabor EcuatorianoPanaderia El Sabor Ecuatoriano
339 East Lake Street, Minneapolis

A gentleman standing by the door to the back room watches us as we wander through the mostly empty shelves of pastries. (It’s well past noon, so thinned-out bakery shelves are to be expected.) Eventually, the man gets our attention. He points to the area we’ve been perusing and shakes his head. Then, he points to the rolling racks behind the counter. In body language, and a bit of broken English, he tells us these racks contain the freshest pastries.

It’s somewhat hard to for us to understand him, but one thing he clearly communicates is that the coffee is free. He tells each of us in turn, just to make sure we get it.

By his demeanor, we assume he’s the owner. But when we ask he shakes his head and points to a woman who has just appeared from the back room. We’re not sure if he’s the owner’s spouse, or just a friendly advocate for her work. Either way, we appreciated his enthusiasm. And the free coffee, of course. – M.C.

***Food Notes***

A bag of eight pastries priced out to $7 at this little Lake Street shop and the coffee was free, so you’ll be hard-pressed to find a less spendy bakery anywhere within the metro. The croissants were simple and serviceable, and the pan con queso (cheese bread) was tender, whisperingly sweet, and surprisingly wheat-forward in flavor.

We dug the crunchy, gently lemon-kissed meringue swirls that provided as much visual impact as flavor, and the pretzel ring-like roscones had a satisfying crisp chew.

Most of all we savored the chocolate-dipped pañuelos, buttery, crunchy, horseshoe-shaped pastries spread with a thin layer of hyper-chewy jam that reminded us of Somali halva. – J.N.

Dulce Mex exteriorDulce Mex #2
325 East Lake Street, Minneapolis

Imagine standing at the epicenter of a piñata explosion. Now imagine the piñata was the size of a two story building and you’re buried under mounds-upon-mounds of its candy payload and brightly colored shrapnel. That’s Dulce Mex.

We duck and weave our way through a room packed with piñata stars. Pointy cones poke down from above dripping crepe paper and tinsel streamers like stalactites in some otherworldly cave.

We’re surrounded by tables and shelves overflowing with Mexican candies. Who knew there existed so many variations on tamarind-based sweets? Or so many methods of tamarind delivery. Spoons. Sticks. Straws. Roll up sheets. Hard. Chewy. Spaghetti-shaped. All of them packing some version of that unique pucker-inducing, tangy, sour, sweet, spicy flavor.

***Food Notes***

The choices are essentially endless in the candy wonderland that is Dulce Mex #2, and everything we ordered ended up taking us on a legitimate culinary roller coaster. The colors might be bright and bold, but the flavors were anything but simple.

The Cuchaleta Duo Plus ($6.50 for 20 pieces) is a bold one-two flavor punch of remarkably grainy paste packed onto a small plastic spoon and wrapped in a rubber-banded piece of plastic wrap. Not really a “piece of candy” in the European-American sense of the term, this was more of an intense, multistage journey, beginning with an intense mango sweetness, and then traveling through a profoundly sour bite, a real gritty saltiness and finishing with a mellow but lingering chili heat.

Some of those same sensations define the Lucas Salsagheti ($5.50 for a box of 12 .85 oz packets), a candy that combines a watermelon-flavored candy rope with blasted-from-a-packet tamarind sauce, much like, well, spaghetti with sauce. Earthiness bounces into a tangy intensity finished with a sweet-versus-heat fistfight that leaves your mouth hurting yet wanting more.

And the Mega K-Chetada ($9.50 for 25 giant pieces in 5 flavors) was truly in a league of its own. This massive, flat-smashed strip of brightly colored candy paste had some fruit-roll-up textural elements, and can in fact be curled into a concentrated blob of candy on the stick that it rides upon. The mango variety we tried offered a surprisingly bright citrus blast, the chewiness of a classic fruit roll-up and a salty finish that complemented its sweetness. Plus it looked epic when peeled out of its plastic and proudly unfurled. – J.N.