A Return to Homi and the Question of Who Makes Money Cooking Mexican Food?


As I have said before, since the demise of La Huasteca, Homi on University Avenue in St. Paul (where else?) has been our favourite Mexican restaurant in the Twin Cities. I’ve reviewed it twice before (here and here). But I like to keep up on the blog with our favourite restaurants, not just eating there but also reporting on their trajectories over time, checking in on how things are going. Accordingly, I have another report today on a recent dinner at Homi. We ate there two weeks ago with friends after a rather disappointing theater outing (The Song of the Summer at Mixed Blood). The dinner, I am glad to say, was much better.

But before I get to the meal itself I want to ask a few questions on a subject that has been on my mind fitfully for a while and which got pulled to the front in September. First when I read an article in the New York Times about Ann Kim (of Young Joni fame) and her plans for an upcoming restaurant and then later that month when I read Devra First’s excellent review of a Somali restaurant in The Boston Globe that highlighted the question of what kinds of restaurants food writers  and reviewers do or don’t pay attention to. That subject is the knotty question of who it is who benefits from the coverage and ongoing premiumization of Mexican food in the Twin Cities—or more to the point, who doesn’t. I’ve been wanting to write about it for a while but wanted to wait till we had a chance to get back to Homi. (If you’re not interested in all this you can just scroll down.)

Let me say first of all, that I am not talking here about who can cook Mexican cuisine (or other immigrant cuisines). This is a question which gets a sub-species of food writers—usually >40 years of age and usually white—very exercised but it is a boring question. The answer is obvious: anyone can cook anything and they do. The kinds of claims that some who professionally cook the food of cultures other than their own go on to make about what they’re doing are a different matter. And the increased scrutiny that rhetoric now gets in the slowly changing American food media from younger writers of colour should not be conflated with the (usually imaginary or at least inflated) spectre of prohibitions of “cultural appropriation” by anyone interested in discussing the subject in good faith. But as I said, this is not what I am interested in here.

Here I want to draw your attention to the wide gulf in a place like the Twin Cities between the vast majority of Mexican (and other Hispanic) restaurants owned by Mexican (and other Hispanic) restaurateurs and the small but seemingly growing genre of high-end Mexican restaurants. This gulf can of course be characterized in terms of money—both in terms of the differential access that these restaurateurs have to large amounts of money and also, relatedly, in terms of what they can charge for the food they serve and the broader notion of value that then attaches to what they serve. That is to say, this gulf can also be characterized in terms of cultural capital. It can unsurprisingly also be characterized in terms of race.

Ann Kim’s new restaurant may become the fourth high-end Mexican restaurant in the Twin Cities. It’s not clear yet if its cuisine will proclaim itself as Mexican; she dances around this question in the Times piece despite the restaurant’s build-out already being underway in September. Whether it bills itself as Mexican or just as “Mexican-inspired” it will join Pajarito, Colita and Popol Vuh/Centro on the list of high-end Mexican/adjacent restaurants in the Twin Cities. Of these three only Popol Vuh/Centro is helmed by a Mexican chef. On the one hand, you have a clear indicator that Mexican food is becoming “hot” in the local high-end scene. On the other hand, you also have a clear indicator that this heat is being abstracted away from the actual community whose food is/will be served in these restaurants after being put through whatever cheffy filter. There is big money to be made with Mexican food but not apparently by actual Mexicans.

Now keep in mind that Minnesota has a pretty large Hispanic population (276,000 in 2014) of which 72% are Mexican. And this population is young and growing fast. I’d be surprised if the number is not much higher in the next census. And Minnesota—and especially the Twin Cities metro—also has a lot of Mexican restaurants at the lower-end, many of which are far better than those with stereotypical notions of the Upper Midwest might expect them to be. But it’s not clear how much of this existing kitchen talent is getting access to the high-end kitchen pipeline as Jose Alarcon, the executive chef of Popol Vuh/Centro, did at Lyn 65. (And let’s not even talk about front of house staff—and this is also true of the new high-end Asian restaurants like Young Joni, Hai Hai and Lat14: apparently high-end restaurants are where you go to eat the food of another culture without seeing any of its people*.) This rising tide does not seem to be lifting all boats.

But I don’t mean to suggest that the problem here is only or even mainly that most of the small (though growing) number of high-end Mexican restaurants don’t have Mexican chefs and servers, leave alone owners. The bigger problem, to echo Devra First, is the differential coverage of Mexican restaurants that are not at the high end—and you can repeat the exercise for pretty much every immigrant cuisine that has received a recent high-end incarnation somewhere in the Twin Cities. The restaurants at the lower-end serve the members of their communities—by contrast, diners at places like Hai Hai and Young Joni are likely to be as white as the servers. When these restaurants get written up in the local press they serve as evidence of the diversity of the Twin Cities’ food scene but they never get to be part of the consequential cultural conversation about it.

Big deal, you might say, let the places serving $14 cocktails and playing deafening music get the coverage; let the small places glide under the radar and do their thing. I’m sympathetic to that idea but the sad reality is that quite a few of the best smaller immigrant restaurants exist in more precarious conditions than they should. They need more attention, they need more business. But even the many lower-end Mexican and other immigrant restaurants that do good business need to be made part of the larger conversation about restaurant and food culture. If the Twin Cities—like other major metros in the US—wants to see itself as cosmopolitan it needs to extend the definition of its cosmopolitanism across the class and race spectrum.

Everyone interested in good food in the Twin Cities should know about Homi, about On’s Kitchen and Bangkok Thai Deli, about Grand Szechuan, about Fasika, about Cheng Heng. I can’t tell you how many times a month I encounter people on Twin Cities food groups on Facebook and elsewhere who have never heard of or been to any of them. Places like these—and many others—should get more than occasional mentions in the local food press which seems largely entirely focused on places with p.r agencies. To her credit Dara Grumdahl at MSP Magazine has been doing more of this kind of coverage of late—see her piece on Hmong Village and Hmongtown Marketplace and her profile of Harry Singh. We need more of it, from everyone. Let’s make it the rule, not the exception.

To get finally to our meal at Homi: the food was good as always. With one exception, we got things we’ve eaten before and were mostly very pleased. I made the mistake yet again of not specifying that I wanted my pollo en pipian rojo to be spicy but it was still very tasty. Everything else we ordered (we were a party of seven) was beyond reproach: tinga de pollo, pollo en salsa verde, mole con pollo, costillitas de puerco en adobo, carne asada tacos. Other than the tacos everything came with refried beans and rice and warm tortillas. The house-made guacamole and complimentary chips and salsa were also excellent as always; and I also enjoyed the platanos fritos (fried plantains) which were the one new thing we ate at this meal.

For a look at the food and the space please launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see how much it cost and to see what’s coming next.

Service was slow as always but it was warm. All of this came to <$130 with tax and tip. Counting our boys as one adult diner, this was just over $20/head. Which is a steal for the quality of the food. If you have somehow never been, or just haven’t been recently, do go soon. A restaurant like Homi should never be empty. And if you are restricting your experience of cuisines of more recent immigrant communities to more expensive restaurants that serve hipsterized, “elevated” versions of it then you are, if nothing else, doing yourself a disservice. To be part of a city’s food culture should mean to eat all of it.

Coming next from the Twin Cities, a review of a meal at one of those hipsterized restaurants: Lat14.


*To be fair, this is also something I noted of high-end/hipster Indian restaurants in New York like Baar Baar, Adda and Bombay Bread Bar.

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