Inside the newly opened Jefe, the sophisticated Latin vibe is underscored (and playfully tweaked) by the wine-guzzling, broad-brimmed-hat-wearing metal statue that greets you as you walk through the door. This reinvention of the event center at St. Anthony Main is inspired. The room is warm and inviting, studded with nooks and crannies. The decor reads as chic without feeling cold. The outside of the restaurant is worth noting, too. The patio overlooks St. Anthony Main, affording uninterrupted views of quinceañera and engagement photo sessions plus packs of 20-somethings hunting for Jigglypuffs and Squirtles.
Decor and design are well and good, but the food is always the thing. Jefe does a Mexican-street-food-inspired menu, but there are plenty of twists and turns. Take the Aguachile ($10), a cevichelike mix of hamachi, lime, cilantro, cucumber, avocado, onion, and a side of house-made tostadas. This stuff was bright, bright, bright — lots of acid and bold flavor, plus a distinct but notably fresh fish aroma that paired well with the warm summer air.
Or the Oxtail Tacos (two for $8). They could’ve used a bit of salt and acid, but the meat was well prepared, rich, and moist. It’s not a meat you see on a lot of menus like this, but it’s a worthy addition to the tinga / carnitas / pastor stable.
And speaking of pastor, Jefe does a vegetarian Cauliflower Pastor ($12) with pineapple, fried onions, and grilled jalapeño. We wanted a little more charred roastiness from the cauliflower but enjoyed the dish (particularly the house-made Durkee-like fried onions) overall. The spice level was pleasing — a bit of balanced heat — and could have been even hotter without tipping the canoe.
Our Sopes ($8) consisted of tender, properly prepared carnitas packed into fried masa cups and topped with pickled onion, radish, cotija cheese and a reasonably mild “salsa diabla.” These split the table – some appreciated the texture and crunch of the masa cups, others thought they made it difficult to enjoy their somewhat more subtle filling. A more liberal use of heat and depth of spice would’ve helped, but these were a fine appetizer by any assessment.
The Tamale de Pato (duck tamale) clocked in at $19. Despite its size (large), the quality of the refried black beans on the side (high), and deliciousness of both the duck and the corn contained within the husk (fair), paying nearly $20 for a tamale rankled us. Duck’s an exotic ingredient, and it was handled well here — rich and flavorful, not dried out or fatty. On paper, a perfectly reasonable experience for the money. But … tamales! Twenty dollars should, we feel, purchase five to 10 (slightly smaller, granted) tamales. The problem may be more on our end than Jefe’s.
We found the cocktails at Jefe ($9-$12) to be uniformly tasty, from a serious-business margarita for adults (think lots of tequila and citrus flavor, no horrible sour mix or Slurpee slush) to an enlightened spin on an Old Fashioned to one of the best white wine sangrias we’ve had in a long, long time. Notes of pineapple, grapefruit, and melon made the sangria one of the best things we’ve sipped this summer. So often we find margaritas and sangria to be sugary garbage. At Jefe, they were given the consideration they deserve.
Dessert at Jefe was one of those transcendent moments. The dish was just salted caramel ice cream (granted, from Sebastian Joe’s), sweetened condensed milk, and roasted plantains ($7), but somehow the combination of caramel (in both the caramelized plantains and the ice cream), salt, and the dairy of the milk and ice cream made this dish a perfectly harmonious jam session. The texture and flavor of every element amplified and complemented the texture and flavor of everything else. The result was a dessert our table of four crushed in about 90 seconds.
Service was warm and attentive (our only real complaint: all our food hit the table in one monster plate dump), and the crowd on a Wednesday night was lively and large. With its choice location and inspired decor, Jefe could’ve phoned in its food and service and done all right. Instead, it committed to its vision and delivered a surprisingly serious experience.
Jefe Urban Hacienda
Mexican-street-food-inspired bistro at Saint Anthony Main
219 Main St SE
Minneapolis, MN 55414
4 p.m.-close (whatever that means), brunch Sat and Sun 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Some
ENTREE RANGE: $13-$25
NOISE LEVEL: Amenable din
PARKING: Metered street parking