Northfield, Minnesota is a small college town of just over 20,000 people. Its motto, derived from the presence of a number of dairy farms in the vicinity and two liberal arts colleges in town, is “Cows, Colleges and Contentment”. This contentment, however, rarely derives from the quality of food available in town. Perhaps because both colleges are residential (and most of the students on paid meal plans) the town does not offer the wealth of acceptable dining options available in many college towns across the US.
That’s putting it mildly. Of the places worth mentioning there are two “Chinese” restaurants that compete with each other to inspire horror in diners; there is one Indian restaurant which is quite popular and also quite not good (there was another slightly better Indian restaurant but it shut down a few years ago); there is one Japanese restaurant which serves food just above mall food court level (this is an achievement as the “Chinese” restaurants fall far below this threshold). The town’s “fine dining” option is the Ole Store, a sit-down restaurant that has over the years gone through a number of incarnations and variations on the name, and of which the best I can say is that if you ask for things that don’t require too much cooking you’ll be okay (get a steak, ask for it medium-rare and get fries with it).
As for the rest, there are a number of dubious establishments of various types, classes and ethnic origins. You will not starve in Northfield if your kitchen dies but you are very unlikely to eat very well if you have any sort of gastronomic expectations (unless your allegiance to the virtues of small town life trumps your palate). These opinions, I am very sad to say, are more annoying to more of my friends in town than I would like to be the case.
There is, however, one exception to the general rule of bad food in Northfield and its name is El Triunfo. This is the current name of a Mexican grocery and ultra-casual restaurant on the corner of Second Street and Highway 3. This location too has gone through a number of incarnations. When we got to town in 2007 it was called Maria’s; in quick succession it became Vencedora and Sosa’s, before being purchased a few years ago by Miguel and Alicia Hernandez who continued to run it as Sosa’s for a little while before changing the name to El Triunfo. Every incarnation provided decent food but it’s the cooking of Alicia Hernandez that has made El Triunfo stand out and made it stick. I don’t want to make overly large claims for it. It’s a casual place with a menu that would be entirely unremarkable in most major cities with large Hispanic populations–indeed, it would be unremarkable in the Twin Cities–but in Northfield it is a small miracle.
This both because, as noted above, most Northfield eateries don’t seem to try very hard and because Northfield has not always been very welcoming of its small but steadily growing Hispanic population (whom we doubtless have to thank for El Triunfo’s presence in town). This, I hasten to add, is not a reflection on the town’s city council but of the general populace. It’s not that there’s overt hostility towards minorities in the town but ethnic diversity of anything but a northern European variety is generally a new idea in the region and not everyone seems on board yet. All of this became visible a couple of years ago at the town’s major annual celebration: the Defeat of Jesse James Days. If you’re wondering what this is, read on.
Northfield only enters the pages of history books because the James-Younger gang stopped off here in 1876 to try and rob a bank and were rebuffed soundly by the townspeople. The gang are all long dead, of course, some killed in the immediate aftermath, but the town still hasn’t gotten over it. Every September the Defeat of Jesse James Days takes over the town for four days–there’s a rodeo (with terrible steak fry), a carnival, lots of bad music, and the centerpiece of the whole celebration: endless re-enactments of the bank raid.
In 2010 the organizers, to their great credit, decided that one (only one of many) of the enactments would feature a Spanish translation for the benefit of Spanish speaking townspeople. The amount of hell that broke loose over this might have led you to think that Santa Anna had risen from the dead and led a zombie army north to raid every bank in southern Minnesota. The rhetoric was depressingly familiar: American culture under siege, “why don’t they learn to speak English?” yadda yadda. The great irony, of course, as a number of people noted at the time, is that one of the people commemorated by the DJJD festivities is Nicolas Gustafson, a very recently arrived Swedish immigrant believed to have been killed by the gang for not heeding their demand that he get off the street because, wait for it, wait for it, he did not speak English…. As I once quipped to George Santayana, those who re-enact history are doomed to not understand it.
The town went ahead with the Spanish version that year but dropped it the next; I am happy to note that it is now featured again.
Anyway, back to El Triunfo: the Hernandezes, originally from Veracruz, previously owned Dulceria Mexicana, a purveyor of Mexican sweets in nearby Faribault (where they live); this is their first restaurant. Miguel H. mostly mans the register (helped sometimes by their young daughter) and helps a bit with prep work and packing to-go orders. The grocery itself is pretty decent–it’s the place to shop in town for Mexican provisions but also for a lot of produce and very good chorizo. The kitchen is a two-person affair: Alicia H. is the chef and she is assisted ably by Yuma Gonzalez. The ambience is minimal and it’s not the smoothest operation: you order the food first and then take a seat at one of the not very many tables in the back; the food comes out slowly; you eat, clear your table and pay at the counter on your way out. If you’re in a large group, or even a small group, or if they’re busy it can take a fair bit of time for the food to show. But this is not the kind of place at which you should quibble about the service–it is relaxed and very casual; my own m.o is to place an order, run an errand and then come back 15-20 minutes later to eat it (if I’m by myself) or take it home (with the kids take-out is easier at El Triunfo).
As long as it takes to come out, your food will, however, be very freshly prepared. Unless you’re eating one of the daily specials–on most weekdays this is tinga de pollo, chicken braised in a spicy sauce of chipotle peppers, onions and tomato–everything is made to order. The chicken is one of the most popular items and can be got in a burrito, on a sope, in quesadillas, on a taco or as a plate with rice, refried beans, salad, avocado and corn tortillas. Almost everything comes with Alicia H.’s killer green salsa–an innocuous-looking green thing with a kick like a mule’s (and if you don’t get it you should ask for some). There’s a bunch of other things on the menu, mostly familiar and some unfamiliar to those who don’t have much exposure to the wider world of Mexican food. On the weekends there’s freshly prepared carnitas (just wonderful on Saturdays, sometimes a little dry on Sundays) and barbacoa (goat and beef)–these can be purchased by the pound (or fraction thereof) or gotten as a plate as above. Also available on weekends, though less reliably, is an excellent pozole and very good menudo. On weekends or weekdays none of the food caters to non-native palates.
We eat their food a lot; it’s the only place in town I eat at happily (everywhere else, someone else has to be paying), and I live in fear that it will close someday. While they do decent business I seem to know way too many people in town who’ve never eaten there. I just don’t get it: yes, it’s not a comfortable place to eat and service and ambience are marked by their absence but if you like good food you should go. There’s just no excuse. However, unless your name is Jim Leff there is no need to drive to Northfield from the Cities to eat at El Triunfo–you should just go to Los Ocampo instead. If you are in the general vicinity though, there’s no better food in a 30 mile radius, and it’s good on its own merits too (and the portions are large and the prices low).
If you are here and looking for tips on what to eat here are some images from recent meals—please click to launch a larger slideshow with captions. (There’s also a full range of Mexican sodas and bottle Coke made with sugar.)