When Hector Ruiz signed a lease on a tiny pair of side-by-side south Minneapolis storefronts last year, his original intent was to open a daytime burger-and-malt joint, catering to students at nearby Washburn High School.
Fortunately, he switched gears (not that there’s anything wrong with burgers and malts; there are some weeks where the combination constitutes two of my major food groups). Ruiz kept the name — La Fresca — but turned his focus to dinner, concentrating on interpreting traditional Mexican ingredients through the prism of the nouveau French cooking that he absorbed during a yearlong apprenticeship in the kitchen of the historic Lucas Carton in Paris.
Since that immersion into French cooking, Ruiz has become the mastermind behind four Minneapolis restaurants. Four menus, yet he tries hard to refrain from repetition.
Guacamole, for example, differs at each property. My favorite is the creamy version served at La Fresca, which incorporates a just-above-mellow roasted tomatillo sauce — and a splash of chile de arbol-infused oil — into the avocados. Acidic tomatoes (Ruiz’s father cultivates them in a few south Minneapolis garden plots) brighten it up even more.
To get a glimpse at Ruiz at his best, start with the ceviche, a wonder of simplicity and clean, pristine flavors. The kitchen treats the delicate, finely textured red snapper like the sushi-grade delicacy it is before giving it a quick, five-minute marinade in lime juice and sea salt. Then it’s tossed with crunchy jicama — with a bit of yellow tomato and jalapeño for color — and spooned onto crispy fried tortillas. After just one utterly refreshing taste, you’ll wonder how you can replicate it at your next party.
For those in search of a seafood destination, this is it, as the vast majority of the menu’s entree items place the fruits of the sea in the spotlight. Miraculously, Ruiz manages to keep prices in the $22 to $24 range, a tremendous value. And it’s all prepared with an admirably light touch.
Maybe it’s because the restaurant’s kitchen is shockingly tiny, or maybe it’s due to Ruiz’s restrained French training, but nothing on the menu is too fussily complicated, so the quality of the fish is complemented rather than overwhelmed.
Scallops, heavy with juice and caramelized to a gently crispy mahogany, are enhanced by sharp shallots and sweet red onions.
I loved the gentle cardamom and clove notes emanating from firm sea bass. Guajillo chiles, their heat tempered through toasting, enliven the pistachio crust on succulent grouper. And kudos to the textural contrasts between crispy-skinned snapper, crunchy apple-fennel slaw and chewy snips of zesty chorizo.
Less successful are the kitchen’s forays into animal proteins. An autumnal approach to pork tenderloin looked good and smelled great, but the meat was disappointingly dry and flavorless. A dullard of a roasted chicken could have come from dozens of other, lesser restaurants. Best was a skillfully prepared beef tenderloin, the fork-tender meat revealing hints of jalapeño and cilantro and finished with chile-infused butter.
I’d book a table at La Fresca just to graze my way through the appetizers. Familiar queso fundido is fortified with earthy mushrooms and poblano peppers and scooped up with salty tortilla chips fashioned from the purple corn that Ruiz loves so much. (“It reminds me of my dad’s mother. She would make them from scratch and I’d sit next to her and eat them,” he said.) Slow-roasted duck and sweetly caramelized onions prove the perfect filling for delicate pan-fried empanadas.
Crispy flautas are filled with stewed mushrooms that contrast nicely with an avocado-tomatillo salsa, and the ribeye tacos are not to be missed.
Dessert, alas, is another story. Unlike the kitchen’s savory efforts, execution on the sweets side feels halfhearted, whether it’s a lifeless flourless chocolate cake, a timid Key lime pie doused in caramel sauce or a runny, espresso-infused creme brulee with a weak eggnog-like flourish.
Weekend brunch is a definite highlight. Ruiz cherry-picks components from dinner and then skillfully repackages them into an appealing dozen or so egg-centric dishes. Get this: The average price is $9.
Fluffy scrambled eggs are dressed with layers of flavors: a hearty black bean purée, a lively guajillo sauce and a cool salsa verde. Steak and eggs means slices of that tender jalapeno-marinated beef with a pair of fried eggs, a side of brown rice and a garden-fresh pico de gallo.
My favorite is easily the pair of over-easy fried eggs laid out on rice and splashed with a rich mole of sweet plantains, pineapple, golden raisins, pine nuts and fragrant traces of cinnamon. Turns out it’s a family recipe, passed down from Ruiz’s maternal great-grandmother.
“The things that I do, I always have a memory,” he said.
Nothing comes out of the oven, baked goods-wise, but there’s a slight consolation from the griddle, which turns out tender (and uncharacteristically not-too-sweet) cornmeal pancakes that are dotted with flavorful kernels of roasted sweet corn.
Academics focusing on entrepreneurship would find a riveting case study in Ruiz. Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises sent him to the Twin Cities in 1992 to open Tucci Benucch at the Mall of America, and from there he developed a specialty — launching huge eatertaineries — including the Rainforest Cafe and Planet Hollywood.
Stints at Cafe Un Deux Trois, Zelo and Prima followed. Ruiz took over El Meson and ran it for a dozen years, closing it in 2012. Cafe Limon and Indio came and went during that time, and then Ruiz began to plot his complete takeover of Grand Avenue. That’s Minneapolis, not St. Paul.
Cafe Ena (at 46th Street) appeared in 2009. Tapas-focused Rincón 38 (at 38th Street) materialized in 2013, and La Fresca (at 48th Street) followed a year later. Ruiz debuted La Ceiba Bistro in the city’s Powderhorn neighborhood this past spring.
Channeling the knowledge he picked up opening all those big chain restaurants, multifaceted Ruiz saves cash by building his restaurants himself, or acting as general contractor.
At La Fresca, he’s managed to squeeze 40 elbow-to-elbow seats into a cramped, colorful dining room, and another 10 in the adjacent sneeze of a bar. Such close quarters encourage that most un-Minnesotan of all activities, conversing with strangers.
For that, chef Ruiz — along with that ceviche — you have earned my undying gratitude.
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