Appetites: Hidden ethnic gems

Cinco de Mayo Mercado
The restaurant at Cinco de Mayo Mercado in Richfield is attached to a Mexican grocery store. In Spanish "antojitos mexicanos" translates into "little whims," and the restaurant specializes in street-style snack food.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

When looking for authentic food from around the world, it is easy to think about the urban options — an eating tour of University Avenue, for example, or a trip to Eat Street.

But as James Norton from The Heavy Table tells it, there are good global eats hiding out in the suburbs and beyond.

MPR News: Is this a new thing — finding really good world food in suburban strip malls and small town Main Streets?

James Norton: This isn't so much breaking news as it is an ongoing, low-key trend. But it's something quirky that you pick up on and enjoy as you write about food.

Suburbs and strip malls can offer much more affordable real estate for beginning restaurateurs, and can also, in some cases, be proximate to your fellow countrymen and women who can create a core clientele for a new restaurant. So it's a chance for first-generation food to take root and find its voice before trying its hand at pricier urban real estate.

MPR News: You've got a few places in mind that you wanted to share. We're headed south of the Cities, right?

James Norton: Yeah, for sake of convenience, these restaurants are all in the south metro area, but I could have gone in any direction — north, east, or west — and found good examples. The first place I wanted to talk up was Cinco de Mayo Mercado, a Mexican restaurant in Richfield.

Cinco de Mayo Mercado
Tucked into a Richfield Mexican grocery store, Cinco de Mayo Mercado, is a small restaurant specializing in street-style Mexican food Friday, Dec., 28, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

You walk through the arched door of this place and painted words advertise "antojitos mexicanos" — you can translate that as "little whims," a reference to the small bite-sized bits of deliciousness within.

For $2.50 you can get a sope, a thick, fried corn tortilla topped with sour cream, lettuce, and some sort of protein. Try it with the suadero (cubed beef brisket), the meat is full of fatty flavor, not salt. The juicy cubes of beef are crisped up on the flat top, giving the snack a succulent, sort of state fair-like appeal.

Also really good is the tlacoyo, a fried and stuffed masa tortilla. It's $4, thick and moist in the way of a pancake. Inside might be soft pinto beans or fresh cheese, and the whole thing is covered in your choice of meat, loads of fresh cilantro and more cotija cheese.

MPR News: You've stumbled upon some other great Mexican eats in south metro, haven't you?

Cinco de Mayo Mercado
Favorites at Cinco de Mayo Mercado include the tlacoyo, left, and the sope, right, photographed Friday, Dec. 28, 2012 at the restaurant in Richfield. A tlacoyo is a deep-fried corn masa patty stuffed with refried pinto beans and topped with cilantro, grated cheese and sour cream. A sope consists of a thick hand-made corn tortilla topped with meat, in this case beef brisket, refried beans, lettuce, cheese and sour cream.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

James Norton:Considerably further south, actually. While traveling to Northfield to report a story on Shepherd's Way Cheese, my wife and I stopped in at a little market and restaurant called El Triunfo.

I had some great tacos al pastor; little spiced-pork tacos served with chopped up onions and cilantro on doubled up small corn tortillas.

Tacos al pastor can be dry, or one-note (from a seasoning perspective), or stingy on the meat. But at El Triunfo the tortillas bulged with tender, deeply spiced meat that was perfectly cooked, with all the soulful grill char you could ask for. The toppings were fresh and full of flavor, and even the accompanying lime wedges were plump and full of juice.

As a side note, you often see that, the ethnic market plus restaurant combo — go way up Northeast, for example, and you can get great Korean food at the market/restaurant combo Dong Yang.

MPR News: And there's more than Mexican food out there, right?

James Norton:Among others, I've come across great Indian, Korean, and African American folk food out in suburbia and beyond — authentic Chinese, too, back when Tian Jin was really killing it in Chanhassen. And I love Yangtze in St. Louis Park for dim sum.

But this last place I want to talk about is actually a bit more Mediterranean in flavor. There's a Greek place in Bloomington called Gyropolis that I went to a number of months ago and really enjoyed. It's completely unpretentious food — gyros and pizzas and baklava, you know, simple, familiar food. But they really used a lot of care in doing what they do.

Conventional gyros tend to suffer from stiff, flavorless pita, under-flavored tzatziki, and dried out, sometimes leathery meat. But the sandwich at Gyropolis tastes fresh and as delicate as you could hope for from such a robust street food.

The restaurant's baklava is outrageously delectable, butting up against the heavenly stuff sold over at Filfillah in Northeast. Crunchy and flaky as the dickens, it packs a cinnamon wallop that borders on spicy, a terrific balance for the balanced honey sweetness that concludes each bite.

MPR News: What's the subtext here? Next time I see some unusual food for sale in a remote strip mall, dive right in?

James Norton:Yep. Roll the dice and give them a try. And send me an email if they're good. I'm not afraid of a drive.

James Norton is editor of the online food magazine The Heavy Table. He has authored several books about the regional food scene, including "Food Lovers' Guide to the Twin Cities" and "The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin." Follow him @chowsupertaster.

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