For 40 years, El Burrito Mercado has been there for St. Paul.
This week, St. Paul was there for El Burrito Mercado.
“It’s a family business, it’s important to this community,” said Gov. Tim Walz, collecting a takeout order of tamales, burritos and beef tacos for his family, waiting at the governor’s residence 4 miles away. “And they’ve got the best tamales around.”
A pair of masked men burst into the store last month, robbed the staff and patrons at gunpoint, then escaped into the night. El Burrito Mercado — one of the anchors of the West Side business district and the neighborhood’s beating heart — was a crime scene. Police are still investigating.
The West Side rallied around El Burrito Mercado and its shaken staff. In the days and weeks after the attack, police stepped up patrols, the community set up a neighborhood watch, Mayor Melvin Carter dropped by for a meal. Regulars filled the restaurant and browsed the aisles of bulk spices and fresh produce, visited the bakery and butcher shop and loaded up on fresh-baked Mexican pastries.
A new Facebook group, St. Paul Town Hall, wanted to help. They also wanted tacos.
When every other issue is tearing people apart, the group’s moderators had noticed, one thing brought them back, across any political or ideological divide. So they organized a Taco Tuesday outing to El Burrito Mercado.
“Everybody agrees on food,” said Andy Rorvig, who helped organize the outing. Dozens pledged to attend, and hundreds more said they might.
You take two people who were at each other’s throats over garbage policy or snowplowing or City Council elections and ask them for a restaurant recommendation, he said, and suddenly the online debate turns into a chorus of “Oh, I love that place too!” “That’s my favorite spot!”
“Food has a weird effect of bringing people together,” Rorvig said.
On Tuesday, El Burrito Mercado brought them together, laughing over margaritas and splitting enormous platters of $1 tacos: uniformed police officers, children giggling over chips and salsa, neighborhood regulars and first-time visitors from the other side of town.
Milissa Silva-Diaz watched the crowd with a delighted smile.
She was 8 years old when her parents, Tomas and Maria Silva, set up shop in a tiny 800-square-foot storefront in 1979. Today, the ever-expanding business includes the restaurant, market and deli, catering, an El Burrito Mercado food truck and a satellite location in Minneapolis.
“It’s a blessing and an unexpected outcome,” she told the crowd.
The thieves got away with money, phones and wallets, and for a while, they stole the neighborhood’s sense of safety.
“We were scared for our neighbors to be scared,” Silva-Diaz said.
Enrique Estrada, a community engagement specialist for the St. Paul Police Department, sat at a table with half a dozen college students he was mentoring. He grew up in the neighborhood, and El Burrito Mercado had always been the central gathering spot.
“This is a great place,” he said, as waitresses in embroidered blouses delivered tacos de alambre, tacos acorazados, tacos cachetadas and tacos tradicionales around the room.
St. Paul Town Hall is up to almost 1,000 members, all dedicated to celebrating the small-town charms of their big city. In a community that often divides and defines itself along neighborhood boundaries, outings like this are a chance to celebrate the places and people the entire city can share, said moderator Amanda Karls, who comes to El Burrito Mercado often with her husband and young sons.
“We are here because we love this business so much,” Karls told the crowd. “It’s one of those kind of Main Street businesses that really makes the city what it is.”
This Taco Tuesday outing, she said, was “a great big community hug” from St. Paul to El Burrito Mercado.
“Because,” she said, “they deserve it.”