What does a Mexican chef do when the property he chooses to open his new restaurant has a giant smoker in it?
First thing: Learn how to use the smoker.
That’s what Alejandro Castillon, the chef/owner of the new Prieto Taqueria Bar (701 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-428-7231, prietotaqueria.com) did when he took over a vacant former barbecue joint on the busy corner of Lyndale and Lake.
The founder and former co-owner of Sonora Grill sold his stake in that restaurant last year and set out on his own. He looked at a few locations before settling on a building that was most recently the Hasty Tasty. The barbecue restaurant, which was open less than a year, had installed a deluxe smoker that was now available to Castillon.
So, he taught himself how that sauna-sized beast worked. In the meantime, he roadtripped to his native Sonora in Mexico (on the other side of the Arizona border) to pick up a machine that grinds corn into flour for tortillas. On the way, he stopped in Kansas City, and used it as a research trip to sample the kind of barbecue he hoped to make in his new spot.
“I loved how these people make the all the meats and flavors,” Castillon said. He realized then: “I want to make the taco this way.”
To get to know his shiny red, Texas-made smoker — which can hold seven pigs at once — he read books and consulted his friend, chef Daniel del Prado (they worked together at Solera), who is using the same model (albeit a smaller version) at his south Minneapolis Oaxacan restaurant Colita.
In late-June, Castillon opened Prieto, which melds Mexican cuisine and American barbecue.
Smoked brisket empanadas? Check. Smoked skate fish ceviche? Check. Twelve-hour firewood-smoked carnitas? Check.
“I try to mix a little American into the taco,” Castillon said.
Just don’t call it ‘fusion.’ “Nobody uses that word anymore,” he said.
Besides smoked meats, Castillon is focusing on salsas. Ancho, arbol, verde, avocado and roasted salsas come with freshly fried blue chips from the corn he grinds (on that machine he drove back from Sonora) and presses into tortillas in-house. He hopes to eventually sell petite bottles of his fiery red arbol salsa at markets.
Prieto is one of a slate of newer Mexican restaurants to come to the Twin Cities. There are Popol Vuh and Centro, Colita, Kua, and a taqueria from Ann Kim still to come. “I’m so happy more Mexican places are opening,” Castillon said. “I feel Mexican food is the most rich with recipes.”
And there will always been a hankering for more, he said.
“I love tacos. People love tacos.”