Nixtamal tortillas at Nico's Taco & Tequila Bar
Since opening Nico's Taco & Tequila Bar in Minneapolis about seven years ago, Alejandro Victoria has had a dream. His food always emphasized the Indigenous ingredients and flavors of his Michoacan culture, but the tortillas he used, while made by small businesses in Minneapolis, were not the ones he remembered so fondly from his childhood in Mexico, where his father was a corn farmer.
"When I would sit at grandma's clay oven, she would give me breakfast of just a tortilla with rock salt, and when she rolled it the salt would melt right into the tortilla," he recalled. "The No. 1 thing I want to do when I go back to Mexico is have a tortilla with salt." (No. 2 is tequila, he added.)
The difference is in the corn. Commercial tortillas are made with processed corn flour that's been dusted with an anticoagulant that keeps the meal from sticking together.
Heritage corn, like that grown on Victoria's family's farm, is nixtamalized — it's soaked in wet limestone dust (originally, ash was used) that both contributes to and breaks open the flavor of the kernels.
"Like wine, it takes on the flavors of wherever you harvested the limestone," Victoria said.
It was a process that didn't especially interest him until his father died. "It was an incredible chore when I was younger," he said. "Today it seems like the most important thing in my life."
The process not only makes the corn more nutritious and easier to digest, but imparts complex, nutty flavors that you won't find in a regular corn tortilla sold in bags at the grocery store.
One variety Victoria is highlighting now is rosado heirloom corn, and it's a pinkish color. "It almost tastes like flour, but not," he explained. "You eat it alone in your mouth, it's a little bit bitter. But when you nixtamalize it, it becomes buttery, almost sweet."
That's one of four heirloom corn varieties he is working with at the moment; he had to source them through a broker who imports them from Michoacán via California. For now, the nixtamal tortillas are available as an upgrade on the Minneapolis takeout menu, but within a few weeks, they will be the norm. He hopes to bring them to his St. Paul location soon.
Get them with any of the restaurant's bursting-with-flavor taco fillings, or in the fun taco box, a meal kit with 10 tacos and a huge array of housemade salsas and other fixings that fed my family for days ($40).
"The COVID box," Victoria said. "That's one of the things that rescued us. There wasn't much business coming here, but pizza places were all on a two-to-three-hour wait. We said, we've got to put something together like pizza. You can call and get this box and open it up and it's time to eat. It pays for our breakfast, lunch and dinner." (Sharyn Jackson)
2516 Hennepin Av., Mpls., 612-345-7688. Open for curbside pickup 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Squash crostini at Hyacinth
Chef Rikki Giambruno always features a crostini on his menu. Thank heavens.
"It's a vehicle for eating what is basically a salad," he said. "It's also an approachable and delicious way to hit your taste buds in a bunch of different ways."
He's right. In Giambruno's hands, these open-faced sandwiches — masquerading as salads — may be straightforward in terms of appearance. But hiding in plain sight are enticing and expertly balanced variations of flavors, textures and colors.
Right now, the centerpiece is winter squash, whatever variety is coming out of Twin Organics, the organic Northfield, Minn., farm run by siblings Jacob and Andrew Helling.
The kitchen is currently working its way through a 60-pound delivery of butternut squash, which sounds promising. Last week the spotlight was on delicata, which I've always loved for its earthy, sweet potatoey bite and cheerful orange flesh. Both of those qualities blossom as the squash is roasted under very high heat.
The bread, a mild sourdough, is from Patisserie 46 ("They're the gold standard in the Twin Cities, for sure, and they're a joy to work with," said Giambruno), and each thick-cut slice is quickly broiled so the crust takes on a hint of smoky char but the concentrated heat doesn't mess with the bread's chewy interior.
From there, simplicity reigns. The toast gets a tangy swipe of whipped, honey-sweetened goat cheese. Toasted pumpkin seeds insert crunch, and freshly chopped herbs contribute a flash of garden-fresh color. What Giambruno describes as "an abundance" of lemon juice acts as a palate-cleansing finishing touch.
All of this impressive goodness is priced at a highly reasonable $6; that's an even greater value considering how well the crostini hold up to the rigors of takeout. Big surprise (not): it's the menu's top-selling item.
"It's a no-brainer for us in the fall and winter," said Giambruno. "We put it on the menu in our first year, not thinking that we'd have a big hit on our hands. People love it so much that we joke about it." (Rick Nelson)
790 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-478-1822, hyacinthstpaul.com. Open for takeout noon-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. daily.
Whiskey and cheese pairing from Brother Justus Whiskey Co.
Six years after opening as an underground distillery, Brother Justus was ready to let the world in to its sprawling new complex in northeast Minneapolis. The night the soft opening was scheduled, Gov. Tim Walz announced the latest restaurant and bar shutdown.
"We've been waiting six years, we can wait a few weeks more," said CEO and founder Phil Steger.
Instead, Brother Justus has found a way to transfer the cocktail room experience to homes. They're selling gift boxes with 375 ml bottles of all three of their whiskeys, plus a cheese and charcuterie pairing curated by chef Jametta Raspberry, whose House of Gristle handles the food program.
Wine and cheese, sure. But whiskey and cheese? It might be a first.
"We don't know anybody who is doing this," Steger said. "You eat the cheese, you drink the whiskey, and it's like, what is happening in my mouth?"
Deer Creek Vat 17 Cheddar pairs with the Silver, an unusual clear whiskey that hasn't been barrel-aged, yet tastes like caramel. The American single-malt matches with Gruyère 1655 from Swiss caves. "But the real crown," Steger said, is the Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk washed rind, a funky soft cheese that pairs perfectly with their equally funky Cold-Peated whiskey. (We'll have more on their one-of-a-kind Cold-Peated whiskey another day.)
Sampling each whiskey — sniffing, tasting — then a cheese, then another sip of whiskey, and registering the change in flavor and feeling was the closest I've felt in a while to being seated at a bar and asking the bartender to surprise me with something interesting, something she's excited to share. It wasn't just takeout, it was an event.
You can also get cocktail kits by bartender Jonathan Janssen, including one that was a collaboration with chef Yia Vang and tastes like a "pho-flavored daiquiri," Steger said. Another first. (S.J.)
3300 NE. 5th St., Mpls. Open for curbside pickup 3-7 p.m. Thu.-Fri. Three Kings Holiday Gift Box available Dec. 16-18 for pickup ($150). Join a free livestream holiday party with cocktail-making and a guided whiskey tasting on Brother Justus' Facebook page Dec. 19 at 7 p.m.
The Kevin Garnett at Fire & Nice Alehouse
Another test of delayed gratification: This pizza-and-beer haven was supposed to open in April 2019 in Heyday's former home. A small fire undid that plan.
"It sat there and smoldered a few hours," said owner Nate Ropes. "One-hundred percent, every inch of this place was covered in soot."
A prolonged insurance battle prevented rebuilding until this summer, in the middle of the pandemic, and two days after rioting swept its Uptown neighborhood. "It was kind of lucky we didn't start the buildout," Ropes said.
Finally, construction was underway. It wrapped up just in time for new indoor dining restrictions, which — in a familiar story — came down the day before the planned soft opening.
Takeout it is.
"That was the lovely thing about this," Ropes said. "The menu was intentionally simple before. It remained intentionally simple." It's pizza. And beer.
Pizza comes from chef Aaron Hargrave, owner of Blue Fire Pizza food truck, which I first discovered on the downtown Minneapolis lunch scene. A half of his thin and crisp Neapolitan-style pie with crushed tomato sauce and fior di latte made for a memorable workday lunch.
Hargrave is a big sports fan, so many of his pies were already named after athletic legends. Some new ones nod to famous Minnesotans from other realms, too: there's a Prince and a Bob Dylan.
I went for the Kevin Garnett, an homage to the former Timberwolves player and Philly cheesesteak, with an American cheese cream sauce, wild mushrooms, onions and jalapeños and shaved New York strip loin. And the Kent Hrbek, with a seasoned red sauce and those fancy, curly little pepperonis (all beef, by the way). And yes, I got that straight-up margherita that I loved from those long-ago office lunches. (It's called the Harmon Killebrew.) That sauce, so sweet and bright, was just as good as I remembered.
The best part: you can order the pizzas parbaked so you don't have to speed home and eat them before they cool and "get all mushy in the middle," Ropes said.
There will be more pizzas when the restaurant fully opens. And eventually, 32 taps of Minnesota-made craft beer.
Was the long delay worth it?
"It was hurdle after hurdle to begin with, and everything we came up with was, 'How do we get through this, how do we keep going?' " Ropes said. "Throwing in the towel was never an option. The pizza's too good. The beer's too good." (S.J.)
2700 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-259-8060. Open for takeout 3 p.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu., noon-9 p.m. Fri.-Sun.
Mexican hot chocolate at ViV!R
On the hunt for the (nonalcoholic) beverage that's going to get you through the winter? Look no further.
When owner Jami Olson and chef José Alarcon converted their Popol Vuh from an upscale dining room into this casual, takeout-friendly cafe/bakery/market, they made sure to create a bunch of hot drinks that stepped beyond the usual espresso routine.
Alexa, what's the Spanish word for "dreamy?" Because that's one way to describe ViV!R's Mexican hot chocolate.
The dairy-free formula stirs small pieces of darkly bitter chocolate into steamed coconut milk, a decadent mixture that's lightly sweetened with raw cane sugar and perfumed with vanilla and cinnamon. There's a final tender-loving-care moment: a pop of cayenne, which literally warms you from the inside out with each sip.
Cost is $5 (so worth it), and a highly caffeinated espresso add-on can be had for an additional $2.
"It's going to get you through your day, that's for sure," Olson said with a laugh.
Pair it with one — or, let's be real, two or three — of baker Ngia Xiong's fabulous polvorones, those nutty, powdered sugar-coated cookies also known as Mexican Wedding Cakes.
Since the restaurant's debut a few weeks ago, the Mexican hot chocolate has developed into a runaway hit.
"It's more popular than coffee, which feels insane to me," said Olson. "But you know how it works. Someone posts a picture on Instagram and it becomes a hot ticket item." (R.N.)
1414 NE. Quincy St., Mpls., 612-345-5527, vivirmpls.com. Open for takeout 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun.
Sharyn Jackson • @SharynJackson
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib