1979 appears to have been an important year in the history of Twin Cities dining. It is the year in which Saji-Ya opened in St. Paul and it is also the year in which El Burrito Mercado—perhaps the Twin Cities’ most iconic Hispanic business—opened. It opened however entirely as a mercado/market; it wasn’t until 1983 that they started serving food. And it was in 1995 that they moved into the massive space they currently occupy on Cesar Chavez avenue and which they have added to steadily over the years. This expansion has largely taken the form of ever-greater dining space. The complex now contains a large market (with prepared foods and a butcher shop), a counter-service cafe, and a bar/restaurant space with two dining rooms and a large adjoining patio which features live music and so forth. We ate lunch on this patio this past Saturday with the same crew that had joined us at Mañana two weeks prior. Here’s how it went.
El Burrito Mercado is a large space. And to get to the patio you enter through the market proper and make your way through it, past the deli and counter service cafe, all the way past the bar and indoor dining rooms. The patio—which seems like it was probably once a parking lot—is large and the tables are well-spaced. I’m not sure how busy it gets on weekend nights but it was empty when we got there on Saturday at noon (there were, however, quite a lot of people eating indoors). Indeed, by the time we left only two other tables were occupied. Now, that’s the patio on a weekend for lunch. If you’re planning to go eat indoors on a weekend evening you’d best make a reservation from their website (the patio is not available for booking). And my guess is that they get pretty busy at lunch on Sundays as well when a buffet is featured.
If not buffet’ing, once seated you will be given some chips and salsa (one red, one green) on the house. Like us you might choose to add some guacamole. It pains me to say that the guacamole was pedestrian; particularly painful as it was almost $10 each for two not very large bowls. The salsas, however, were quite good. The menu is large but does not include very much that is very far out of the way of what is familiar to most non-Hispanic habitués of Mexican restaurants in the Upper Midwest.
What did we order for the main event?
There were eight of us—including our boys—and we each got one dish all of which were served rice, refried beans and salad. These included an order of the Tacos Tradicionales, two tacos (ordered al pastor); a Tamales Platter with pork; an order of the mole poblano; and five selections from the guisados section: an order each of Chicken Fiesta, chicken a la Mexicana, birria and carnitas and the pork with salsa verde. Due to some ordering confusion our server brought out two of the pork with salsa verde and none of the chicken a la Mexicana. When we pointed this out she told us to keep the second pork and brought out a plate of the chicken as a bonus.
The food was mostly good with the mole poblano and the pork with salsa verde the standouts in my opinion (I did not taste any of the al pastor). Both the carnitas and the chicken in the Chicken Fiesta were on the dry side and so too I thought was the bit of the tamal I got a bite of. My own birria was fine but nothing so very special. And the beans and rice and tortillas weren’t anything to get very excited about either (for contrast see my enthusiasm for the refried beans and thick Salvadoran tortillas at Mañana)
To end we split a couple of orders of regular flan and the boy with the sweet tooth ate an alarming amount of the very large serving of chocoflan which is essentially a thick triangle of flan sitting atop chocolate cake. The texture of the flan was a bit denser than I prefer but the others who ate it seemed to like it just fine. (A hornet that descended on us at the end was also really taken with the flan—just some added excitement to go with outdoor dining.)
For a look at the space and what we ate launch the rather excessive slideshow below. Scroll down to see how much it all cost and to see what’s coming next.
Service was patient (it took us a while to all assemble and get ready to order), present and friendly. The total inclusive of tax and tip was just about $24/head. To be frank, that seemed a bit high for the quality to me. El Burrito Mercado is an institution at this point but based on what we ate I wouldn’t say it’s where the best Mexican food in the Twin Cities can be found. Homi is still tops in my book but more research and exploration is clearly called for. If you have suggestions on other places to go for Mexican food in the Cities please write in below (as always, places with outdoor seating are especially preferred in the current situation).
All that said, El Burrito Mercado is a Twin Cities institution and if you haven’t been—or, like us, haven’t been in a very long time—it’s very much worth a stop. The market and deli are worth the trip in their own right even if you don’t eat there. Indeed, I’ll be posting a look at the market next weekend. And as it happens, my next restaurant review will also be of a Twin Cities Mexican restaurant, though one at the fine dining end of the spectrum. That’ll be next Tuesday.