Colita opened in South Minneapolis in late 2018 and quickly gained a reputation for its rendition of Oaxcan food passed through an upscale cheffy filter. For whatever reason we didn’t get around to eating there in 2019. Did they not take reservations at the outset? Was it very hard to get a reservation then? I can’t remember. Anyway, when we got back from India in early 2020 I finally made a reservation…for the month of April. You know how that went. Flash forward a year and change and it was drawn to my attention that they have a large patio for which they take reservations. I made reservations again and we were supposed to eat on that patio three weeks ago. And then it rained. Their patio, it turns out, does not have any kind of covering and so it was a no-go (we ended up eating at Andale on a patio under an overhang). And I made a fresh set of reservations, hoping like hell that the weather would not play us false again. Thankfully, it did not and we finally ate there this past Saturday with the friends we were supposed to eat with earlier in the month. Herewith the details.
If you’re in the Twin Cities you likely know that Colita was the second outpost of chef Daniel Del Prado’s mini-empire. We enjoyed our meal at his flagship, Martina, quite a lot back in 2018 but we haven’t been back yet or been to any of the newer places in his portfolio. At Martina the food draws on Del Prado’s Argentine/Italian background. I don’t believe he has an Oaxacan connection in his background. It seems instead to be an entry in the burgeoning American genre of “restaurants opened after the chef went on holiday to the source region/country”.
I’ve wondered before about the cultural economy that seemingly allows for certain cuisines to ascend the buzzy high-end in the American market more readily if the chefs/owners are not from the source culture. In the Twin Cities, certainly there’s been more than a little of this in recent years with the cuisines of Latin America, be it at Hola Arepa, Pajarito, Colita or Ann Kim’s latest, Sooki & Mimi. The opening of Jorge Guzman’s Petite Leon (which we had reservations at before Delta raised its head) balances things out a bit but it comes after the closure of Popol Vuh (though its casual sibling, Centro continues). Meanwhile the restaurants that have Hispanic chefs/owners and predominantly serve a Hispanic clientele remain almost entirely off the radar of the readership of the mainstream food press which focuses almost entirely on the high end.
Of course, this is not to say that the Mexican food at restaurants run by non-Mexican chefs cannot be very good in its own right—even if those chefs are far less likely to be emerging from a training/grounding in Mexican ingredients and techniques of the kind that the average high-end American chef receives in French or Italian cuisines. Bracketing the question of unequal access to capital (financial or cultural), it’s the execution and not the chef’s passport that matters on the plate. And at our meal what was on the plate was mostly quite good, though there were only a few things that we all thought we’d be in a hurry to want to eat again.
What did we eat? The menu is divided into three sections: Cold, Hot and Smoke. We ordered a fair bit of each section, getting everything to share.
From the Cold section we got the Tuna Tostadas, the King Mackerel Aguachile, the Beef Tartare and the Charred Eggplant Tostadas. The aguachile was very good and the eggplant tostadas were just excellent: a wonderful blend of flavours and textures with the burrata an inspired addition. The tuna and the tartare were less successful. The beef in the tartare disappeared completely into the acidic dressing; the tuna fared a little better but didn’t make much of an impression either (both were lovely presentations though). The large chips that came with the tartare were outstanding, however and both sets of tostadas themselves were very good too.
From the Hot section we got three items: the Cacio e Pepe Stacked Tostadas, the Mushroom Tamal and the Beef Tongue Sope. Cacio e pepe tostadas seems interesting as an idea but was just okay in practice (and that after lacing them liberally with the hot sauce provided on the side in a little dropper bottle). The large tamal sat on a very tasty sauce and the black trumpet filling was very good too. Alas, the tamal itself was overcooked and too dense/hard. The toppings on the sope were very tasty as well—though I might have preferred the tongue chopped a little finer—but the sope itself didn’t offer the pleasing contrast of a crisp exterior and a more yielding, thicker interior. It was fairly crisp throughout, with the center bordering on hard (was the execution off or is this a necessary design feature to support the toppings?).
Things improved with the Smoke section. From here we got the Chicken Tinga Tostadas, the Lamb Barbacoa Tacos and the Green Chile Pork Tacos. The tostadas themselves were again beyond reproach; the tinga, on the other hand, was a case of the soul of a robust dish being refined out of it. The chicken was of obvious high quality and had been braised perfectly; but the smoke and heat of the chipotle barely registered. Both sets of tacos were very good, however. I think two of us preferred the lamb and two the pork (I was in the latter group).
There is only one item in the Desserts section (which makes you wonder why they don’t call it the Dessert section): churros. We grumbled about the lack of choice for a while—wouldn’t it be nice to eat some flan or a slice of tres leches cake? But when the churros arrived we had no complaints. Hands down the best churros any of us had ever eaten and for that matter hands down one of the best desserts of any kind we’d had in a while. The execution on the churros was perfect (they almost resembled extra-crispy jalebis in a way) and the dulce de leche was excellent as well.
Oh yes, drinks. They have a bespoke cocktail program that has a very high reputation in its own right. This for me was a source of sadness as I was medically barred from drinking on the night (I’ve been dry for eight days now and will be for two more in preparation for some blood work). The other three in the party managed five drinks between them, however. The missus got just the one as usual, plumping for the Pina Kokotl. She was not a huge fan, finding very little evidence of the billed pineapple and coconut. The others started with one each of the Colita Old Fashioned (a mezcal affair) and the Morena (also featuring mezcal and apparently also mole) and liked them so much that they got one more of each.
I should also add that the physical dishes the food came on were just beautiful (as was the little tumbler in which the Morena was served). I hope they don’t suffer too much breakage!
For a look at the restaurant and the food and drink we consumed, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see what we made of it on the whole, how much it all cost, and for thoughts on the service (about which, I am sorry to say, we had some reservations).
So while there were some execution issues elsewhere as well, it was only the tartare and the tuna tostadas that were misfires (and the cacio e pepe tostadas were a bit blah). The tamal and the sope had issues with the parts of the dishes that give them their name—you might think that an unforgivable sin but the fillings/toppings in/on both and the sauce under the tamal were very good. And while everything from the Smoke section was very good too the only things across the meal that I think we all agreed we’d want to eat again for sure were the aguachile and especially the charred eggplant tostadas and the churros. But the average on the whole was high enough that I think we’ll be back within the year to try more. I believe the menu turns over from time to time: I do hope the things we liked a lot will be there whenever we get back.
And so, to the service. We didn’t have to wait too long to be seated—and thankfully, they have a little outdoor waiting area around a fire. Once seated, however, it took a long time for the heater next to our table to be turned on. This despite our asking our server to please turn it on right away and then after she failed to do it, two other passing staff members. We’d been sitting for almost 15 minutes before it was finally turned on. Our server in general seemed barely there for most of the evening—it’s not that she didn’t come around at all but her demeanour was disconnected bordering on impatient/unfriendly. Other members of the staff who delivered our drinks and food seemed to be having better evenings. If you read my restaurant reviews regularly you know we are not really fans of obsequious or over-familiar service; but when out for a fine meal we also do not expect to receive the energy of a brusque counter service ordering experience.
And then to compound it at the end of the evening there was some awkwardness with the bill. Colita is one of several fine dining places in the Twin Cities that have gone to an included service charge/no tipping model. A flat 20% service charge is instead added to all bills. This is not the awkward part: we are completely down with this practice. The awkward part was that despite the restaurant in fact not including a tip line on the credit card receipt our server told us that the 20% service charge was not really for service and that it would be “very welcome” if we were to write in the tip on the credit card receipt or leave cash. I can report that we declined to pay a 30-40% service charge. I’m not sure if others have run into this issue—whether at Colita or elsewhere. The total with tax and the 20% service charge was $303.54 (and no, I don’t know why it says on our bill that we were a party of two). So just about $75/head with five drinks. Probably a little high for what it is but not out of line with the market.
The service and service charge oddness aside, we did, as I indicated, like the meal enough to want to go back. But unless things improve enough on the Delta front and our younger boy’s age bracket finally becomes eligible for the vaccine we are not likely to be eating inside a crowded restaurant (and Colita was very full indoors that evening) for a while—and things are cooling down fast enough temperature-wise here that heated or not, patio dining is probably not going to be viable much longer. So next spring is probably the earliest we’ll be back.
And speaking of heated patios, we are scheduled to eat on another one in Minneapolis this coming weekend. That is unless the weather has other plans.