Aguachile at Octo Fishbar

Joshua Page / Heavy Table

We fell in love with aguachile at Mexico City’s Contramar (above). Layers of thinly sliced fresh fish, red onion, cucumber, chile, cilantro, and lime juice: What’s not to love? Yes, it’s similar to ceviche, but it isn’t marinated as long and typically packs a more serious chile-hot punch.

So it was love (and appetite) that made us book a table at Octo Fishbar, Chef Tim McKee’s newish restaurant in Saint Paul’s Lowertown: Its menu promised of Marlin Aguachile ($12, below). And McKee delivered, hitting all the right notes. The marlin was exquisitely fresh and flavorful, and with just a dip in the bright citrus vinaigrette, it was in no danger of being “overcooked.” Charred habanero provided sultry heat, while bits of cucumber and avocado slices kept things cool. It was a delicious summer dish made all the more welcome in the dead of a landlocked winter.

Joshua Page / Heavy Table

Though we thoroughly enjoyed Octo’s aguachile, we wanted more — literally. It was basically an amuse-bouche for two. And it’s not just that there wasn’t enough of the good stuff; we understand (at least assume) that sashimi-grade marlin is expensive. A couple of extra pieces of marlin, and a few more slices of cucumber, onion, and avocado would have brought it closer to our ideal: the totally satisfying layers of ingredients and flavors that we’d first fallen for in Mexico. We’d happily pay a few more bucks for a plate of our beloved aquachile.

Octo Fishbar, 289 5th St E, St. Paul; 651.202.3409

La Cocina de Ana in Plymouth

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

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.

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

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.

Beer, BBQ, and Morning Roundup

PastureLand Co-op fights to survive, Lift Bridge Brewing suspends six-pack bottle sales (due to a lack of capacity at Cold Spring Brewing), a look at the Waite Park neighborhood of Minneapolis featuring Ready Meats, how the temporary loss of MillerCoors beers could also threaten local craft beers, craft beers-a-plenty at Belgian independence week celebrations, a fair assessment of Market BBQ (as decent but flawed), and a fascinating local take on ceviche featuring whitefish, green apple juice, green prickly ash berries, and salted milkweed buds.