Remember that mom in your neighborhood growing up who always had kids over because her cooking was so amazing? One of those moms was Ana Rayas, namesake of La Cocina de Ana – a take-and-bake shop featuring authentic, soul-satisfying Mexican dishes at the corner of County Road 6 and Highway 101 in Plymouth.
“People work, they have families, they’re just plain busy,” says Rayas (above). “It’s convenient for them to be able to pick up dinner that’s healthy and fresh, made with the same quality ingredients that you’d use at home.” Herself a mother of five, Rayas has field tested her dishes on neighborhood kids and church gatherings for over 20 years. With no restaurant experience, she and husband Luis opened in December 2010 in a part of town starved for Latin cuisine (though now, along with Uchu, maybe Plymouth is turning the corner?).
All of their dishes are ordered for take away in multiple sizes. A small serves 1-2 people (around $8 to $10 for entrees), large entrees serve 5-6 (around $17 to $22). We found three medium entrees, with a medium Arroz con Maiz and one small side (which we supplemented with our own black bean/corn salad and Margaritas), comfortably fed a party of 11 for under $60.
One’s first visit to La Cocina de Ana should involve an order of her downright spectacular chilaquiles. They are more precisely Budin de Chilaquiles, as they are more of a casserole made with corn tortillas instead of tortilla chips. Layered in between is shredded chicken in a hearty and mildly spiced tomatillo salsa. “Always corn tortillas,” says Rayas. “Flour tortillas are considered more of a treat, like maybe you’re making quesadillas. But the normal, everyday tortilla is corn. And so [the Chilaquiles] are gluten-free, people really like that.” The rojo version of her Chilaquiles is Budin Azteca – a lovely mélange of pork carnitas, corn, and peppers in a smoky guajillo-based sauce.
“I’m a mechanical engineer,” says Rayas. “My mom always cooked at home in Mexico, so I learned from her. When I moved here, I realized that none of those flavors were around. And that Velveeta sauce? Ugh, that stuff kills me. You never see Mexican food with cheddar or any yellow cheese, always white. This was 21 years ago in Michigan. So I started experimenting with recipes, and people loved them. We had thought about starting a business, but with five children and my husband had a full time job, it never materialized.”
They got the push they needed three years ago, when Luis’ entire department at Cargill was dissolved. With his advanced degrees in Food Science and Packaging, Luis designed the kitchen and helmed the selection of their versatile take-and-bake dishes. They’re aluminum, but coated around the rims and bottom to be microwave safe (as long as they don’t touch the microwave edges). The preferred method of heating is a conventional oven, but for the summer months they’re also grill-top safe. Ana highly recommends grilling her Budin Azteca, as the already smoky flavors do well when charcoal-enhanced.
Their most popular item has been ceviche. The mix of shrimp, avocado, onion, tomato, and cilantro just lightly bathes in the lime juice. They pre-cook the shrimp, since the traditional acid-cooking method, combined with the take-and-bake aspect, would be a nightmare for both quality control and dealing with the health department. When asked how much she made the previous day, after a bit of mental math, Ana proclaimed “About 18 pounds. And that’s not a big day for ceviche. It was something big, I can’t remember if it was the Super Bowl or New Year’s, but I made twenty-some kilos that day.”
The can’t miss one-two punch on the menu is Beef Tinga over Arroz con Maiz. The delicate, slow-simmered, deeply flavored beef with tomatoes and onions is magical over a simple bed of rice and corn that is astonishingly more than the sum of its parts. “I’ve been making that one forever,” says Rayas. “I could make it with my eyes closed. The children love it with the tinga.”
The menu has remained largely unchanged since opening, though they have begun featuring seasonal items, for example, tuna empanadas during Lent. They plan to debut more fresh, non-bake dishes for the summer months.
A note on the cooking times: We found it took a little longer than the packaging indicated to get the dishes to serving temperature. They had likely been in the fridge for a few hours, and tenting them with tinfoil, as directed by the label, certainly slows down the heating process a bit. If you get different kinds of items, watch them closely. In the time it took the Budin to warm, we overcooked the Chiles Anchos in Salsa Verde. If you have the time, get the dishes to room temperature before you start.
And since everything is made-to-order from scratch, they’re very flexible with modifications for every diet. Two versions of vegetarian Budin have even become staples. “I never thought that chilaquiles with black beans would be a good combination, but they are delicious!” says Rayas. “People asked if we could do that, and we’ve added it to the menu. As long as you’re specific, we can cater to anyone.”
Despite what the website says, every item on the menu should be available every day (though you may want to phone in your order to make sure). You can order online by noon for pickup after 4pm. After noon, call in your order to ensure your pickup time. Rayas does keep extra entrees and sides in the fridges for walk-ins, but don’t count on getting your order that way; those get snatched up quickly.
We’ve yet to be let down by a single dish at La Cocina de Ana (oh yes, and it’s pronounced co-SEE-na. Resist the urge to use the Italian “ch” sound). They all taste as if they’ve been made 10,000 times before by the same hands (probably because they have been). So when Rayas says she would like to expand to another location in the next few years, one hopes the brand won’t become diluted for lack of another Ana.
La Cocina de Ana 1400 Cty Rd 101, Ste C, Plymouth, MN 55447; 763.951.3377