Remember when Chipotle landed in the Twin Cities, and the citizenry -- present company included -- seemed to regard the super-stuffed burrito as an OMG-worthy new culinary development? I wonder if Rusty Taco is going to have the same effect on the humble taco.The slick, bare-budget taqueria kicked open its doors yesterday at Lexington and Randolph in St. Paul, and my initial reaction is pretty favorable.
The menu is straightforward: Eleven palm-sized tacos, made to order in a relative flash and all priced at $2.50. Toss in chips, salsa, guacamole and beer, and you've got yourself a hot new restaurant. Here's my question: Why hasn't some fast-food-er thought of this before?
Among the choices: grilled mahi mahi (a definite loss leader at $2.50) with a layer of crunchy red cabbage and plenty of fresh cilantro, chunks of crisp-skinned fried chicken with a terrific slaw and a semi-spicy ranch dressing, a fabulously spicy beef brisket with a crumble of queso fresco, a lively roast pork with tons of pickled red onions, achiote-rubbed slow-cooked pork with chunks of roasted pineapple, and grilled poblano peppers and mushrooms.
The ingredients are obviously fresh in both the looks and taste departments. “Nothing’s frozen, everything is delivered every day,” said operating partner Bruce Ringgenberg. The soft corn and flour tortillas are a par-baked product, so they don’t have quite the level of made-in-house goodness, but they’re head and shoulders above anything at Taco Bell.
Rusty, by the way, is an actual person, and not an adjective describing the house specialty. He’s Rusty Fenton, a Texas restaurateur who launched the first Rusty Taco in Dallas last year. Ringgenberg’s college roommate, Steve Dunn, is Fenton’s business partner, and Ringgenberg, a finance guy, imported the idea north. He said that a few more local outlets are in the works.
“We’ll definitely do one on the Minneapolis side of the river,” he said. “Maybe we’ll do two in each city.”
Ringgenberg is also toying with the idea of adding a regionally influenced taco or two to the menu. “Maybe a lefse taco, with that really bad fish, what’s it called?” he said. “Oh yeah, lutefisk.” Um, how about Spam instead?
The few opening-night jitters that I encountered — just two beers rather than the promised dozen or so, and a depressing absence of gaucamole — will undoubtedly iron themselves out. Service is big-smiles friendly. Putting the prison yard-like lights on dimmers would be an improvement.
And if the crowds materialize as I’m guessing they will, the shopping center’s cramped parking lot could become a problem. But Ringgenberg isn’t too worried. “We just have to educate people that there’s plenty of parking on the street,” he said. Minnesotans? Parallel parking? I don't know about that.
Rusty & Co. kicks off the day with four breakfast tacos, all variations on eggs and cheese with potatoes, bacon or chorizo and all priced at, yes, $2.50. “They’re not really big here in Minnesota, yet,” said Ringgenberg. “But the breakfast taco concept is huge in Texas, and they’re awesome. I grew up in the Prior Lake area, so I know that Minnesotans are used to sitting down and having eggs and bacon and pancakes and syrup, but we’re hoping to change that.”
The location wasn’t an accident. It’s close to Ringgenberg’s St. Paul home (mirroring urbanist William Whyte’s famous study that demonstrated that the majority of American corporations, when building new headquarters facilities, choose sites that are close to the CEO’s residence), and there’s a large number of apartment dwellers within walking distance of the shop. Its proximity to Trader Joe’s is no accident, either. “We have a shared client profile,” he said.
Bottom line: I’ll definitely be back, and not just because I’ve got to make a Trader Joe’s run. Next visit: Breakfast, definitely.