Illustrations by Lora Marie Hlavsa
Funding for the Heavy Table’s Lake Street Profiles series is provided by a grant from Peace Coffee and the Coffee Creates Community initiative. Lake Street Profiles is Heavy Table’s ongoing six-part series of conversations with culinary business owners on or near East Lake Street in Minneapolis.
The slogan painted on the green awning of Las Cuatro Milpas is hard to miss: “Make Tacos Not Walls.” But owner Hector Hernandez remains evasive on the explicit meaning or motivation behind the phrase—which appears again as an inside mural, and again for sale on T-shirts and hats—preferring to let the reference stand for itself. “I’m a restaurant guy—I make tacos, I don’t make walls. If I were working construction, I’d make walls,” he says. “It depends how you take it. I took it in the funny way—I’m not trying to offend nobody.” But while that catchphrase might get people in the door, it’s the standout food that keeps them coming back—especially his birria.
Hernandez moved his family from Mexico to California, before settling in Minnesota in 2000.
Before Hernandez opened Las Cuatro Milpas (which translates to “four cornfields”) in Minneapolis in 2018, he says that no one in Minnesota was serving the birria of his native Zacatecas, a state situated in north-central Mexico. “My family has a few little restaurants up there, and I came up with the idea to bring something different than what anybody else had here before, which is a birria,” he says.
Birria, native to several north-central states of Mexico including Zacatecas, Jalisco, and Aguascalientes, is a rich stew commonly made with shredded beef or goat meat. The birria at Las Cuatro Milpas is hearty with plenty of beef that’s deliciously tender, an ideal meal as winter starts to set in. In addition to the traditional stew, the birria tacos and birria quesadillas are superb—if you want to go the extra mile, which you do, ask for a side of consommé for dipping.
Though it’s become more popular in other areas of the US like San Francisco, Las Cuatro Milpas has made a name for itself with its birria, inspiring other Mexican restaurants around town to start serving their own variations. “Nobody else knew the birria tacos, nobody knew the quesabirria,” says Hernandez. “I was one of the first ones.”
Situated along the East Lake Street corridor, Las Cuatro Milpas is an extension of the original three restaurants run by Hernandez’s family, which still operate in his hometown of Jerez, Zacatecas. “They’re not like here,” he says of the Mexican outposts. “They’re little tiny ones, where you can fit three or four tables and that’s it.” From its humble beginnings in Jerez, Las Cuatro Milpas now has its restaurant on the corner of East Lake Street and Bloomington Ave., two food trucks, a branch in Florida, and one that’s set to open in Bloomington in early 2021.
As for any reservations he might have about opening a new restaurant in the midst of such a chaotic year, Hernandez is confident in his restaurant’s ability to persevere. Even nine months into the pandemic, he maintains that business has been good, crediting his cooks for consistently turning out quality food. “I brought all my cooks from Mexico, [and] I got them work permits,” he says. Every single person that I have that’s from Mexico […] they’ve been working in the restaurant business for the last 15 or 20 years. So I’m super confident with what I’m doing, because we’ve been so successful.”
“We’re not even really really struggling with the pandemic right now—we’re just struggling a little with issues with people,” he continues. “They don’t want to listen, they don’t want to come in with masks, stuff like that.” In the interest of keeping everyone safe, he says that they’re looking at transitioning to takeout-only as COVID cases continue to rise across the state. “[We’ll] just keep it that way until things get better,” he says. “Not just for my safety, but for everybody’s safety—my employees, and especially my valued customers.”
Situated at the corner of Lake Street and Bloomington, Las Cuatro Milpas was near the epicenter of the summer’s protests. Rioters broke the restaurant’s windows and doors, but Hernandez stood watch for seven straight days and nights to ensure that no irreparable damage was done. “I hired some people, some friends, and we stood up on the roof just watching [to make sure] the building didn’t get burned down,” he says. But, like the pandemic, he remains positive in the aftermath of the damage to his business and surrounding neighbors. “It took two months to recover, but other than that we’re happy to be alive, and we’re happy to continue working.”
Like many in the neighborhood, he’s disillusioned by the lack of response from any entity of local government, and realistic with his expectations of support from neighborhood associations. “It is what it is,” he says. “I’m not expecting nothing from nobody except myself. If it comes through: welcome. If it doesn’t: thank you, next time.”
Standing kitty-corner from the colorful Mercado Central and La Mexicana Grocery, Hernandez says that he’s leaned more on his immediate neighbors and fellow Hispanic business-owners than any branch of local government or business association, offering assistance to his community wherever he can. “I’ve got their back, and they’ve got my back. That’s how we support each other.” From handing out water over the course of the pandemic and protests to providing food at voting locations leading up to the election, the restaurant’s coined slogan has played out in its service to the community, one birria taco at a time.
While he’s seen birria spread to other restaurants around town since introducing it on the scene, Hernandez is confident in the authenticity and quality of the goods they’re turning out at Las Cuatro Milpas. “We just always have to stand out more than anybody else,” he says. “As long as we stay here and [stay] safe and healthy, that’s it.”