People who pay attention to my restaurant reviews know that I am not very high on most of the food options in our small town in Southern Minnesota. This, however, is not a time for restaurant meal reviews of the kind I write in normal times. These are not normal times. I am rooting for all the restaurants out there even as I know that many/most of them will have a tough time making it through the business crash of the pandemic. And I am particularly rooting for the restaurants whose owners don’t have deep pockets or investors backing them or easy access to loans or the ability to leverage most of the strategies that more established and savvy restaurants are deploying to survive. The deck is stacked against them even in normal times and even more so now. Which brings me to El Triunfo, a small grocery and informal restaurant in our town that people who pay attention to my restaurant reviews know I am very high on. I am rooting for all the restaurants in our town to make it—even the ones I’ve said the rudest things about in normal times—but I hope they’ll forgive me if I admit that I’m rooting the hardest for El Triunfo.
A good part of this is because we do like to eat what they serve, which is straightforward Mexican cuisine of a kind that is easily found in many large cities. I would not make over-large claims for their iteration of it: it is, as I’ve said before, solid, unpretentious food. But it is done well and over the years it has become our comfort food when eating out in our town. But I am also rooting for them because of what they represent in our town in semi-rural Southern Minnesota. Northfield is a pleasant, liberal college town, a blue oasis in a sea of red (the county went for Trump in 2016 but the town went for Clinton by a large margin). It is nonetheless a town whose class divisions map significantly—though not entirely—onto racial ones. We have a large working class Latino population in town and it would take a very deluded booster to claim that this population is well-integrated into the mainstream life of the town. The city, to its credit, has been trying to address this in recent years but we’re some distance away from success. (It’s also true that many Minnesotans seem to get uncomfortable if these issues are raised in public.)
El Triunfo is not the only Mexican restaurant in town but it seems to me to be the one that makes most visible the presence of the town’s working class Latino population and which does a lot to pull them towards the center of the town. It is located between the two colleges and, almost symbolically, alongside one of the town’s iconic restaurants, the Quarterback Club, established in 1967. Though the two restaurants share a large parking lot their clienteles are quite different. El Triunfo draws a college crowd as well during the academic year but as a restaurant and grocery store it also functions as a hub of Latino social life. Perhaps I am wrong about this but it seems to me to be the main public space in our town where Spanish speakers are on home ground, so to speak, and where it is not unusual to see Latinos and non-Latinos gathered at least adjacent to each other, if not quite together. El Triunfo has—in case it’s not clear—a symbolic importance to us. Having it stick around and become more established in a town and region undergoing slow and not always smooth demographic shifts seems important for more than just the tasty food they serve.
For all these reasons I am rooting extra hard for them to make it through the uncertain weeks and months that lie ahead. And I am trying to do what I can to help support them. It may not be enough anyway but if you don’t support the places you want to see around it will be less likely that they will be around. Our support for El Triunfo includes getting takeout food from them on a regular basis and encouraging friends and acquaintances to do the same; and I’ve also done a little bit to help them with getting set up to do contact-free curbside takeout. One of the things that should always have been obvious but has only come home to me in the last two weeks is the large technological gap between small family-run places like El Triunfo and more established ones, surely exacerbated in the case of first-generation immigrant businesses by language issues. They have no website, no online ordering, no social media presence; they do not have gift cards or certificates to sell; until last week they did not take credit card payments over the phone. All of these are things that would be useful in normal times as well but which seem crucial in these times.
Alas, it’s not going to be possible to help set all of that up now but I do hope that when this is over there will be some assistance in town to help close that gap for businesses like theirs. And if anybody in town with financial/legal expertise is reading this, it would also be great to be able to help businesses like theirs negotiate the relief that may be available to them soon from the recent stimulus bill.
Anyway, the good news is that if you are in Northfield and would like to eat El Triunfo’s food while still maintaining as much social distancing as you can, it is possible to do so. Here’s the process: call them at 507-664-3888 and tell them what you would like to order (pictures of their takeout menu are in the slideshow below). Tell them you would like to pay by credit card. Ask them to add a generous tip to the total before you give them the credit card number. On arriving at the restaurant, park in the rear and call them again and tell them you are there. They will then place your order on a table by the rear entry. Go in and pick it up and go home or back to work to eat your delicious food! Or if you don’t want to pay by phone, call in your order anyway and when you get there, go in to pay. Only one customer at a time is allowed in and there is a table between you and the payment counter that ensures a 6 foot distance. Pay and if your food is not ready go back out to the parking lot and wait for your food to be placed on the takeout table. Then go in and pick it up and go home or back to work to eat your delicious food!
What are some things you could order? I particularly recommend their tinga de pollo, which you can get on tacos, sopes and tostadas, in burritos, quesadillas and tortas, and also as a plate with rice and beans and tortillas and salad. Their carnitas and tamales are very good when they have them. They always have the arrachera and milanesa and those are very good too as are their quesadillas. Really, it’s hard to go wrong with any of what they have. And as always make sure to get their trademark green salsa which is one of Minnesota’s secret culinary treasures.
For pictures of some of what we’ve been getting to go of late, as well as of the menu, launch the slideshow below.
I hope to be able to spotlight a few more local businesses next month, as well as another of our favourite places in the Twin Cities metro. But wherever you are, please do whatever you are able to do to support restaurants that are trying to limp through this time of lockdowns and quarantines.
I admire the way you have, over the years, promoted the small independent restaurateurs in the region. _They_ are American success stories — at least so far. And now they face this unprecedented indeterminate environment. I’m too far away to order from El Triunfo, but I will find an indy Mexican restaurant here to order from.