A Mexican-inspired cantina called Elotes was slated to open Thursday as the new anchor restaurant inside St. Paul's Keg and Case Market. Instead, it opened Friday — with a different name: Woodfired Cantina.
The restaurant, which is taking over the former In Bloom and its 20-foot wood-burning hearth, delayed its opening because of a problem with the fire-suppression system.
The same day, it dropped the name Elotes — nodding to the Mexican grilled-corn dish — after criticism from some members of the Mexican community.
A change.org petition with 255 signatures accused owners Brian and Sarah Ingram of "cultural exploitation."
"The problem is not cooking their interpretation of Mexican food, it's the name of this restaurant that is problematic and unacceptable," the petition stated.
On what should have been its first night of service, about 50 protesters gathered outside the restaurant's entrance for a rally and ritual dance. The crowd was made up of Mexican business owners, activists and organizers from groups such as the St. Paul-based cultural organization Indigenous Roots.
Isa Lopez, who created the petition, was one of the speakers at the rally and a volunteer with Indigenous Roots.
"We really heard the cry from business owners," Lopez said in an interview about why she sprung to action. "Other restaurants and businesses are trying to open up based off of our culture. We want people to know we are tired of people taking advantage of our culture to the point where they capitalize off of it and don't treat us as human beings."
It was especially troubling, Lopez said, that the restaurant was named after a dish that celebrates one of Mexico's most revered ingredients: corn.
"Elote is sacred to a lot of people," Lopez said. "Corn is part of our culture, part of who we are."
There have long been debates over whether chefs and restaurant owners should make and profit off of food from other cultures, and whether they do so with sensitivity and respect.
Is it culinary appreciation or cultural appropriation?
Locally, Andrew Zimmern waded into that firestorm in 2018 when he opened Lucky Cricket, a Chinese restaurant and tiki bar in St. Louis Park. Zimmern made remarks at the time that he was "saving the souls" of the people who dined at Midwestern Chinese restaurants, prompting widespread criticism and a public apology.
Woodfired Cantina chef and co-owner Brian Ingram released a statement Thursday night addressing the backlash and the name change. "We have listened to concerns from members of our community over the name of our restaurant and have taken quick action to change the name to Woodfired Cantina," he said. "Our goal is to make food that brings people together. We are here to listen and learn. Please join us for a meal and make our community a better place."
Lopez is pleased about the change, but said there is more work to be done.
"This is one battle, but it's not the whole thing. We are happy that he was able to change it and he heard us, but we are tired of seeing this. I don't think this is the last time we are going to have to confront somebody with this type of ignorance."
It's not that people who are not Mexican shouldn't open Mexican restaurants, she said. But "people can do it with us. We just want to be included in the conversations."
"Top Chef" star Justin Sutherland has collaborated on the menu at Woodfired Cantina as well as the Gnome. But Ingram's time spent in Southern California and Mexico was the inspiration for the menu at Woodfired Cantina, which includes small plates, bowls, tacos and whole-grilled fish.
Elote, which is typically served with toppings of mayonnaise, cheese and chile powder, is still on the menu. It's just called grilled corn.