Las Cuatro Milpas on Lake St. in Minneapolis (diagonally across from Mercado Central) is a Twin Cities fixture. Their claim to fame is to have made birria and birria tacos popular in the metro. I cannot tell you if they were indeed pioneers in those areas but that’s the story. I’ve been meaning to eat there for many years now and was reminded of them when walking outside Mercado Central a couple of months ago. I then learned that they’ve recently opened a well-received branch in Bloomington, which lops 10-15 minutes off our drive in both directions relative to the Lake St. location. And so when our lunch plans for this past weekend moved in the direction of Mexican food they were the first place I thought of. I came in with high expectations and I am sorry to say that what we encountered was a rather ordinary meal, perhaps the most underwhelming Mexican meal we’ve had in the Cities for a while. Herewith, the details.
The Bloomington location sits right off Highway 494 in Bloomington. Going east, you can get to it by exiting on either Nicollet or Portland. A big bonus for us this past weekend is that it is located a hop, skip and a jump from TBS Mart, my favourite Indian store in the south metro (though as of the late summer they’re now under Afghan ownership—more on this below*). This meant I could get some shopping in before lunch. Alas, this shopping was the highlight of the excursion.
Not having been to the OG Las Cuatro Milpas (or The Four Cornfields), I cannot tell you if the Bloomington location is larger but I’d guess it has far more parking than the Lake St. mothership and is probably a lot shinier on the inside. It’s an attractive restaurant, bright with lots of natural light. The dining room is divided into two long segments as you enter, with tables arranged opposite a wrap-around bar. At the longer end the bar includes counter-seating; on the shorter end it does not.
We were a group of eight (six adults and our two boys) and got a table easily enough (or rather, two tables pushed together). We were there a bit early—having arrived at 11.30 on a Saturday—but while they were doing brisk business the whole time we were there, they never got completely full. The clientele seemed to largely, thought not entirely, comprised of hispanic families. (Bloomington, of course, has a large hispanic population.) As we had a full and tightly-timed afternoon, we got down to ordering pretty quickly.
They may be birria specialists but the menu contains a lot else besides. Between us we got a range of things: a bunch of tacos, including one taco al vapor (or steamed taco); a couple of tacos dorados (including one with birria); some regular tacoas; an order of the mixed ceviche; a Tostada Jerezana; a quesadilla; a garlic shrimp entree served with rice and beans; and yes, a couple of orders of birria (one with lamb and one with beef).
First the good: the person who ate the garlic shrimp enjoyed it a lot; and our boys too enjoyed their food: the younger boy got a taco dorado (fried taco) with lengua/tongue and cheese and one regular taco with carnitas; the older boy got a shrimp quesadilla; another person who got a taco with shredded beef liked it too. The rest, I’m afraid, ranged from not good to underwhelming to aggressively okay. In the underwhelming category were my tacos: I got one with adobada/marinated pork and the meat was dry and overcooked; I got the other with tripa/tripe and the tripe was fried to a complete crisp and barely had any flavour. The missus, who got the taco al vapor with cabeza (beef from the head), and the friend who got the taco dorado with birria were only slightly more enthused by them.
We also shared a mixed ceviche that was just about acceptable. It didn’t have enough acid or heat and was also on the dry side. The two birrias were probably the pick of the meal but if what we got is representative, it’s by no means the best birria we’ve had in the Twin Cities. And, oh yes, the Tostada Jerezana was meh: the tostada (served with pork skin) was doused in an absolutely flavour- and character-free tomato salsa (I think the same one that was set down with chips at the beginning of the meal) and the avocado that was supposed to be in there as per the menu description was nowhere to be seen. Also on the bad end of things was a side of beans that came out completely cold (like, actually cold): we had to send it back to be reheated.
Being optimists we got some dessert: one piece of strawberry cheesecake, which was inoffensive but as one of our friends noted, not very troubled by the actual presence of very much strawberry; and two order of chocolate flan, which was also inoffensive but with chocolate actually present.
For a look at the restaurant and what we ate, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see how much it all cost and for some comparative thoughts.
All of the above plus a couple of Jarritos came to $154 with tax and tip. We were the equivalent of seven adults eating so about $22/head which is not too bad in the abstract. Service was pleasant when present but only occasionally present—they didn’t seem under-staffed, by the way. But if we hadn’t been in a bit of a hurry we probably wouldn’t have cared. There was one service error, however, that could have been bad. We’d asked if the desserts were nut-free and were told they were. And then after our boys—who are both allergic to a slew of tree nuts—had taken a bite the server came back to say that in fact one of them did have nuts! Luckily, it was a nut they are not allergic to (almond).
As for the meal, I’m not sure what to make of it. Did we luck into a very unrepresentative sample of what they are capable of? Did we catch them on a bad morning? Is this location not as good as the original? I can’t answer those questions—if you’ve been and had a very different (or similar) experience, please write in below. But for what it was I can’t think of any reason to go here for Mexican food in Bloomington when Andale is not very far away. And as far as birria goes, we’ve had far better at Homi and also Taco N Madre—both in St. Paul—to say nothing of the glorious birria available at La Huasteca in their glory days.
Alright, Thanksgiving is almost upon us. It’s a good bet that by the weekend we will be thoroughly sick of turkey and looking to eat something else. What that might be, I don’t know yet. Check back in a week.
*Ah yes, I almost forgot: TBS Mart’s new Afghan ownership has not meant any change in the stock of Indian groceries. But they have begun to sell some house-made Afghan breads. These are put out in a tray by the cashier. So far I’ve seen two varieties and I recommend both very highly indeed—especially the smaller, thicker type, which is great dipped into curries, with eggs, and indeed just by itself with a cup of tea. They are planning to make more Afghan foods in the back—and I’m hoping they’ll take seriously my strong recommendation that these include kababs.