We know how fortunate we are to have chef Daniel del Prado cooking in our midst, right?
The Buenos Aires native could be working anywhere — and he has, in Colorado, and Portland, Ore. — but he chooses to plant roots in the Twin Cities.
He worked with chef Isaac Becker at Bar La Grassa and Burch Restaurant before venturing out on his own, opening Martina in Linden Hills in the fall of 2017. But Colita, his dynamic people magnet (5400 Penn Av. S., Mpls.), was supposed to come first.
Instead, it was delayed by more than a year, and during that time it evolved, changing locations and shifting its emphasis from del Prado’s fascination with smoked meats to his affection for the foods of Oaxaca, the Pacific-hugging southern Mexican state.
“Barbecue is too heavy for a customer coming in two or three times a week,” said del Prado. “We started moving toward healthier food. We took a trip to Oaxaca and loved the food, and it just made sense.”
Although no one could reasonably point to Colita and call it a taco joint, this humble staple feels startlingly new under del Prado’s aegis.
For starters, he’s importing various organic Oaxacan corns, grinding them in the restaurant’s cramped kitchen and producing distinctive, colorful and intensely flavorful tortillas on a daily basis. For those wondering why a pair of tacos costs $16, that labor-intense process is a reason.
And that double-take-inducing price is so worth it, especially if they feature lamb shoulder that has been meticulously rubbed with peppers and sesame seeds, carefully smoked for six hours and ingeniously dressed with an anchovies-and-capers sauce, a combination that performs the equivalent of a taste buds tango.
I don’t know if there’s a better taco in the Twin Cities right now. The closest competition could be Colita’s version that places juicy, jalapeno-fueled fried shrimp at the forefront.
Del Prado is also a master of the tostada, whether they’re dressed with velvety raw tuna and a bright tomato jam (and herbaceous celery leaves, a staple in the del Prado pantry), or sweetly luscious lobster with a mild guajillo-fueled rémoulade, or earthy mushrooms accented with sweet onions, or the don’t-miss blend of smoky eggplant and roasted tomato.
Barbecue hasn’t entirely left the building. Traversing a tricky tightrope, meaty pork ribs — glazed with a glorious blend of habaneros, garlic and tamarind — are teased with smoke but aren’t smoky. Drop in on a Friday and you’ll luck into improvised dishes inspired by the whole pig that’s delivered weekly; they disappear, fast.
The restaurant doesn’t entirely adhere to the Mexican travelogue model, with del Prado’s far-flung interests popping up in dishes up and down the menu.
He’s obsessed with mackerel, a dense and oily fish that’s an unorthodox choice for the aquachile treatment. But in del Prado’s hands, it works, with razor-sharp contrasts: the cool, tender fish contrasted against blazing fresno chiles and crispy fried chapulines, aka grasshoppers, imported from Oaxaca. If anyone can mainstream the consumption of insects among cautious Minnesotans — turns out, it’s one of the kitchen’s top-selling dishes — del Prado can.
Chicken liver pâté, another del Prado staple, lands at Colita as the filling in a sope-shaped tart. Traditional, no, and yet Oaxaca is never far away; here the shell is composed of freshly ground blue corn — a spot-on way to accentuate the liver’s unctuousness — and it’s finished with hints of dried and powdered hibiscus, which cleverly inserts an acidic tanginess without introducing liquid. The results taste as good as they look.
One of the more unusual items is a cacio e pepe-style tostada. Del Prado and the classic pasta dish — it’s a staple at Martina — go way back, and he was trying to find a way to acknowledge it at Colita.
“I’m trying to respect Oaxacan flavors, but I also want to have some of me on the menu,” he said.
At Colita, he’s basically taking the pepper-butter combo of cacio e pepe and folding it into a cheese tostada, incorporating mild, semisoft Mexican cow’s milk cheeses but not quite enough black pepper to give it the requisite punch.
On paper, two first-rate dishes make absolutely no sense, and yet I can’t imagine the restaurant without them. Both commit the farm-to-table sin of including offseason sweet corn — del Prado imports it from, gasp, Florida — and he relies upon heat to intensify the kernels’ sugars.
One invokes shimmering scallops, seared in a hot pan until the surfaces bear a delectable caramelization, and served with a lively corn salsa. The other is an eat-every-molecule shotgun marriage between elotes — Mexico’s take on grilled sweet corn — and Minnesota hot dish. Here the kernels are removed from the cob, blended with chipotle-infused mayo and topped with a small snowstorm of freshly grated ricotta salata, a replacement for the traditional cotija to avoid its salt content. I witnessed the occupants of several tables fighting over the last spoonful, a decidedly un-Minnesotan behavior. Oh, I almost forgot: green tomatoes, made more palatable with buttermilk and their acidity heightened by vinegar, make for a splendid salad diversion.
While the menu isn’t exactly running apace with the seasons — those sweet corn dishes, for example — it also isn’t fixed in stone.
“I can’t change the menu much at Martina, because people get upset, and they complain,” del Prado said with a laugh. “So, from the beginning, this one I will change more often.”
It’s geography that makes the restaurant entirely gluten-free.
“In Oaxaca, there were no flour tortillas,” said del Prado. “Wheat is not an ingredient there, because of the latitude. My challenge was to create a wheat-free menu. I like a challenge.”
It shows. As a prodigious consumer of wheat flour, not only did the absence of gluten go unnoticed, but once it was pointed out to me, I didn’t miss it, not for a second.
Even in the cleverly composed desserts. Churros, the dough piped into flattened, spiral-shaped palmiers, are marvelously crisp and flaky. They’re fashioned from white and brown rice flours and utterly irresistible.
“I have to stay away from them, because I used to eat too many of them,” said del Prado.
I know the feeling. A passion fruit panna cotta had just the right palate-cleansing zip. And kudos to what is essentially horchata presented as melted ice cream, a not-too-sweet, not-too-rich way to conclude a meal.
Physically, Colita follows the happy trend of repurposing auto service stations into food-and-drink landmarks. The horseshoe-shaped, dramatically illuminated bar inverts the stereotype of socially cautious Minnesotans who will stop at nothing to avoid close contact with strangers; I can’t help but wonder how many friendships have been forged by folks bonding over the appearance of a showy cocktail or a fragrant plate of ribs.
The dining room’s cool minimalism plays to the building’s strengths. The outdoors are never far away, thanks to enormous walls of glass that, in warm-weather months, open to the fresh air (can’t wait for patio season). One caution: the acoustics aren’t always conversation-friendly.
It’s one of those rare places with a built-in sense of fun. What del Prado and his colleagues have accomplished is giving us what we didn’t know we needed but we now can’t live without. Well done.
Rick Nelson is the Star Tribune’s restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib