Editor’s note: Due to a minor illness, today’s regularly scheduled Louie the Loon will appear on Monday.
La Poblana in Rochester, MN, is easy to overlook. A café in the back of a small Mexican grocery store, many customers have discovered it while they were doing laundry next door. The food is authentic and tasty, but it is the welcoming atmosphere that owners and operators Teo Ramirez and his wife Orkiria have created that makes customers become return customers.
Born in Puebla, Mexico Teo Ramirez moved to Pasadena, California at the age of 6 with only his brother, just 13 years older. By age 18 Ramirez had been living on his own for three years, and was looking for a big change. “Not my style.” Ramirez said, describing his rough neighborhood. He had dreams of going to college and of colder weather, so he bought a bus ticket to Chicago.
As his bus traveled across southeast Minnesota, he was intrigued as it pulled into Rochester. First nicknamed “The Clinic in the Cornfield” by a doctor visiting the Mayo Clinic over a century ago, Rochester spoke to Ramirez; he found the combination of big city and small town appealing. Though the driver would not refund him any money, he decided to get off the bus early.
Teo soon met his wife Orkiria, also Mexican, also raised in Pasadena, and also living in Rochester, MN. Over the next decade they had four children, and, between the two of them, managed to work in most of the chain restaurants across the city. They opened La Poblana as just a Mexican grocery store six years ago, and the cafe followed four years later. “It took a year for people to notice” said Ramirez, but now many locals describe it as the most authentic Mexican food in the city.
Stepping inside is an escape from the Midwest. With cheerful orange walls and decorated with piñatas, La Poblana has a large flat screen TV that is always playing soccer or a telenovela. Bags of unusual candies made of tamarind (or chicken flavored lollypops!) line the shelves next to dried beans and spices. Serve yourself a Mexican Coke made with real cane sugar, a cerveza, or an exotic fruit soda in glass bottles out of the cooler. Teo runs the kitchen and charms the customers with his personality and sincere smile. Orkiria is quiet by comparison, handling the business and bookkeeping behind the scenes. However, you will frequently see her slipping from behind the register to waitress when thing get busy. The pair seems to be a good balance for each other, both devoted to their family business.
“I play with the food,” Ramirez confessed about his cooking style. He is self taught and experimental with his Mexican food, letting the flavors lead. Their guacamole is unusually light and aerated, and is delicious with their homemade tortillas and tomatillo salsa. The salsa’s secret is puya pepper; a dried chili powder that adds what Ramirez describes as, “just a little spicy and sour flavor.”
You will find a typical Mexican menu but they also have rotating daily specials and serve breakfast burritos in the morning. On the weekends you will find delicious tamales – made either “red” with a tomato-based salsa, or the more spicy “green.” Describe ingredients you like, and Ramirez is more than happy to customize your dish. He is quite satisfied with his life here in “peaceful, quiet” Rochester. His ambition continues though; he hopes someday to open a second restaurant and to still earn a college degree.
Mexican Cafe in Downtown Rochester, MN
1121 Civic Center Dr NW
Rochester, MN 55901
OWNER / CHEF: Teo Ramirez
HOURS: 8:30am-9:00pm. Breakfast service stops at 11:00am.
BAR: Not yet
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $6-12