District Del Sol on St. Paul’s West Side calls last weekend’s Cinco de Mayo fiesta “Minnesota’s Spiciest Celebration.” And it isn’t kidding. Culinary highlights included a people’s choice salsa tasting contest, an uproarious jalapeño eating contest (new this year), and a series of food booths with offerings ranging from State Fair-esque deep fried taco on a stick to traditional Mexican-style roasted corn. But, if you missed partying with 100,000 of your fellow Twin Citians (an estimated 25,000 on Friday and 75,000 on Saturday) at the mile-long fiesta down Cesar Chavez St., don’t despair. Many of this year’s best Cinco de Mayo food finds are available year-round.
You won’t be able to duplicate the entire experience, the beat of the live Latin music, the throngs of parade-going schoolboys and girls dressed in sombreros and frilly dresses, the smoke wafting from the grills of the taco vendors, the crowds cheering all who dared ride the mechanical bull Urban Cowboy style, and the excited chatter of Minnesotans enjoying the gentle heat of early May, but there’s no reason to forgo the food.
Newcomer La Fonda Mexican Eats (433 Robert St. S, St. Paul, 651.330.1286) served up tender and juicy pork carnitas and beef carne asada soft tacos, grilled over charcoal in the open air. Condiments included diced onion, cilantro, salsa, and a squeeze of lime. The tacos go for $1.55 each at La Fonda’s restaurant on Robert St. S. The recipe for the secret marinade for the tacos is owner Ernesto Reyes-Diaz’ great-grandmother’s, passed down through his family. The fresh corn tortillas for the tacos come from Gloria’s, a local producer. La Fonda, operated by the same folks who ran the old Me Gusta Restaurants on Lake St. in Minneapolis and on Robert Street in St. Paul, opened in District del Sol four months ago. Reyes-Diaz is particularly excited about La Fonda’s cemitas ($6.49), a style of sandwich that originated in Puebla, Mexico. The traditional cemita is the milanesa, which is a thin layer of beef, breaded and fried until crisp, and served on a bakery-fresh, soft, toasted, slightly sweet, sesame-seed studded bun. The milanesa is loaded with stringy, white oaxaca cheese (La Fonda’s comes from Mexico), avocado, onion, tomato, and chipotle mayonnaise. If you’re ready to graduate from the basic torta, the cemita might be for you.
La Fonda also makes their own horchata iced beverage ($0.99), sweet and refreshing and laced with cinnamon. Reyes-Diaz believes La Fonda’s competitive prices and its delivery service to downtown St. Paul, West Side, West St. Paul, and South St. Paul will give it an edge.
Another newcomer, Helados y Paletas La Chiquita (77 E. Congress St. –at Cesar Chavez– St. Paul, 651.224.4683) is a red and yellow snack shack from which owners Victor Cruzalta and Raul Saud sell hand-made Mexican-style ice cream (cone, $2) and popsicles ($2), as well as savory Mexican snacks. “Something for everyone,” said Saud. La Chiquita has been operating for little over a month. The ice cream, either water or milk-based depending on the flavor, is light, airy, and refreshing. The Heavy Table tried the tequila (La Chiquita’s contains real blue agave) and rompope (a Mexican eggnog-like drink) flavors, and found them true to their respective drinks, without being cloying or overwhelming. Cruzalta says their most popular flavor is coconut. “We buy the coconut, and grind it ourselves,” he says. “You get a bit of coconut in every taste.” Other fruits that La Chiquita buys fresh and mixes in include strawberry, melon, watermelon, and mamey (a tropical fruit). Cruzalta and Saud believe that their emphasis on fresh fruit, natural ingredients (except for food coloring added to a few flavors), and unusual flavors distinguish them from the pack. With its cheery, yellow and red painted picnic tables and small patch of grass, La Chiquita is sure to be a popular neighborhood gathering spot as summer heats up.
El Burrito Mercado (175 Cesar Chavez St., St. Paul, 651.227.2192) brings out its corn roaster on weekends, spring through fall, to prepare traditional Mexican-style roasted corn ($3). The roasted corn is bathed in butter, sour cream, grated cotija cheese (a white and salty cow’s cheese, though El Burrito Mercado’s Tomas Silva Jr. says that goat cheese is traditionally used in Mexic0), a spicy and tangy dash of lime-treated chili, and salt.
Don Panchos Bakery (140 Cesar Chavez St., St. Paul, 651.225.8744), located in a cottage painted the red, white, and green of the Mexican flag, sells an amazing array of baked goods, which stream out of the kitchen in sugar-scented waves. The bakery provides blue plastic baskets for you to serve yourself out of the plastic cases. Pricing is by the piece: $1 for one, $1.50 for two, and so on up to $5.25 for seven items. The Heavy Table tried a vanilla cream beso — which included two light, half dome pastries sealed together Oreo-style with a “kiss” of smooth vanilla custard, and dusted with granulated sugar — a crispy, sweet delight.
One of the highlights of this year’s Cinco de Mayo Fiesta was the People’s Choice Salsa Tasting Contest, where everyone was a critic, debating whether there was too much or not enough cumin, whether the fruit salsa (with cherry) was a hit or dud (it was a hit: Baja Sol took the most unique salsa award), and whether salsa verde should even be hot. Attendees voted for their favorite salsas in three categories: spicy (del sol), mild (suave), and unique (sabrosa). All entrants were local producers: Curt’s (winner, best hot salsa), Baja Sol (winner, most unique salsa), La Cocinita (winner, best mild salsa), Snappy Dog, El Burrito Mercado, and Boca Chica Restaurant. Many of these salsas are available year-round, including the Heavy Table’s favorites, Curt’s Hot Salsa, El Burrito Mercado’s salsa verde, and Boca Chica’s hot salsa.
Curt’s Hot Salsa recipe, which packs the kind of punch that makes your eyes jump from the sockets, then mellows from there, was perfected 15 years ago by Curt and Betty Hollister of Frederic, WI, and continues to be produced in small batches by family-owned Montero Distributing out of Stillwater, MN. Curt’s is widely available around the Metro area, including at the Produce Exchange in Midtown Global Market on Lake St. in Minneapolis, Widmer’s Super Market in St. Paul, and at Kowalski’s, Cub Foods, and Festival Foods around the Twin Cities.
El Burrito Mercado’s salsa verde, which we reviewed previously, was freshened up for the contest with creamy chunks of avocado and is smooth, tangy, and addicting. It’s available in jars at The Produce Exchange, Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op in St. Paul, and fresh at El Burrito Mercado’s market on St. Paul’s West Side.
The salsa we all loved was Boca Chica’s, from the Frias’ family recipe. One taster said, “It’s everything you want a salsa to be. Colorful, fresh, and layered with distinct bright flavors.” The salsa is available, fresh, from Boca Chica Restaurant on the West Side of St. Paul in pints ($3.85) or half pints ($1.95).
You’re too late for Saturday’s jalapeño eating contest, but El Burrito Mercado’s grocery would be happy to sell you fresh jalapeño peppers if you wanted to hold your own, though we can’t say we recommend it. Stacy Opitz, the Public Relations Coordinator at REDA (the Riverview Economic Development Association), the group of business owners that organizes the Cinco de Mayo Fiesta, said “The jalapeño-eating on Saturday at noon, 2pm, and 4pm was a huge success! We had 10 people, with great diversity among contestants, enter each wave. The winners ate all 10 jalapeños, and kept them down.”
The rules are simple: You must spend a full minute savoring your first jalapeño, and, after that, you eat as many as you can, until everyone gives up or the first person’s plate of 10 is empty. No spitting out or drinking water. We ask the winner of the 2pm contest, Mark, eyes still red and watering, from St. Paul’s West Side, what possessed him to enter. “I like contests,” he shrugged. Other participants, some of whom were crying from the pain and could only finish two peppers, said, “It’s a thing to say you did it” and “Me gusta mucho!” When asked if he had any particular jalapeño eating skills, one contestant replied, “I’m about to find out.”
“Ay, ay, ay, mi amigo!” in the words of the announcer at the jalapeño eating contest.