In an ideal world, every square foot of leasable real estate in the Midtown Global Market would be occupied by Alejandro Castillon and Conrado Badilla of the Sonora Grill, Thomas Kim and Kat Melgaard of the Left Handed Cook and other similarly gifted, forward-thinking culinary entrepreneurs.
The Sonora guys first. The lifelong friends left their native northwestern Mexico more than a decade ago, and, like so many other immigrants, headed to Minnesota because they had friends and family members here.
"It's the same story that everyone has," said Badilla. "You say, 'I'm going to go for a year, and learn English.' But then you discover that you like the life here, and you stay."
Theirs is a classic American Dream tale. Badilla enrolled in Dunwoody Academy and entered the workforce, and Castillon started working in restaurants, becoming a familiar face in the kitchens at Solera, Barrio and Bar La Grassa. Last year, Castillon persuaded Badilla to go into business, and they launched Sonora Grill. A year of seven-day workweeks later, the two have become job creators, with seven employees on their payroll.
What they've created is something truly special. Let's set aside for a moment that Castillon -- who seamlessly channels both his own heritage alongside the on-the-job education he received while working for some of the Twin Cities' top chefs -- crafts what are probably the best quick-service tacos in the Twin Cities, and concentrate for a moment on the kitchen's half-dozen sandwiches.
They wisely start with gleaming, golden and teasingly rich milk buns from the neighboring Salty Tart bakery, and then Castillon stuffs them with abandon. The starring attraction could be brazenly tender and wickedly seasoned slow-braised pork, or a thick and juicy pesto-brushed chicken breast, or a lean house-made turkey chorizo that sports plenty of bite, or a deeply flavorful seared skirt steak; all are dressed with aromatic arugula, a mild cow's milk cheese and a generous swipe of zesty aioli.
A handful of skewered proteins also make a favorable impression, particularly a half-dozen batter-fried shrimp that ably demonstrate just how adept Castillon is around tempura batter and hot oil. A bacon-wrapped house-made hot dog, split and grilled for maximum eye-catching drama, ventures fairly far off the charts, flavor-wise. Even the semi-chunky guacamole is beautifully done.
But it's the tacos, using lovingly made tortillas as their base, that truly impress. Along with the remarkable pork, skirt steak, chicken verde and that feisty red tempura shrimp, Castillon also offers a slow-cooked beef tongue that very nearly melts in your mouth, and gently fried tilapia. The fixings are first-rate: jazzy pickled red onions, a refreshing salsa verde, carefully roasted red peppers, crisp cabbage and a complex chimichurri sauce. I'm hard pressed to think of a better way to spend $2.50 in this town.
It's no wonder that the restaurant's soundtrack is the metronome-like sound of a knife against a chopping block; Castillon runs a made-from-scratch kitchen, and the effort is evident in every colorful, nuanced bite.
The market has proved such a successful launch pad that Castillon and Badilla plan to branch out. They're eyeballing sites in the nearby Longfellow neighborhood, and hope to open their full-service restaurant next year. I don't know about you, but 2013 can't come fast enough for me.Sure-handed cook
Kim and Melgaard are also recent transplants, this time from Los Angeles, where Kim sharpened his skills at a parade of top-flight sushi restaurants.
The couple chose Minnesota in part because Melgaard has North Dakota roots, and in part because, on an exploratory dining trip to the Twin Cities, the couple heard about the market's La Sirena Gorda and wanted to check it out. When they arrived, they discovered that it had closed. But there's a happy ending to the story: They also learned that the space was available for lease, and -- long story short -- they launched the Left Handed Cook.
Kim's menu is divided into shared plates, a handful of rice bowls and a half-dozen sandwiches, with hefty doses of Japanese and Korean influences. For a while there it seemed as if every chef worth his or her MAC chef's knife was roasting Brussels sprouts, but Kim makes that trend feel fresh with his fried sprouts dressed with bacon and onion, with hints of orange and mint peeking through those bold flavors. The messy cardiologist's nightmare that is poutine also gets reinvented via sour kimchi, slow-burn chipotle and fatty pork belly accents; it's topped with one of Kim's specialties, a cooked egg that is just barely hanging together.
The rice bowls, served in those white paper cartons that Minnesotans will forever associate with takeout chow mein, make for a substantial meal. But where the menu truly shines is in the sandwiches (also made with Salty Tart buns), especially a glorious soft shell crab number that epitomizes the complementary layers of crisp-soft, hot-cool, bitter-sweet that Kim inserts into his cooking.
If it were a food truck, the Left Handed Cook (a nickname Melgaard bestowed upon Kim when they met) would rank near the top of that culinary biosphere. Fortunately for diners, this is a year-round operation. Other admirable traits? A willingness to cater to vegetarian and vegan palates, and a price range that doesn't top $11. Oh, and Melgaard, the friendly face at the counter, is infectiously friendly.
Next up for the couple: a chef's counter, with a tasting-style menu prepared and served by the cooking staff; Kim estimates that it will debut this fall. I know where I'm going to be come October.
There's other good news on the MGM front. El Burrito Mercado, the landmark St. Paul store and restaurant, quietly opened its Minneapolis outpost last weekend, offering a well-edited mix of retail and quick-service Mexican foods. Chef Evan Connolly (a vet of W.A. Frost & Co., the Happy Gnome and Buster's on 28th) is gearing up to open Well Seasoned, a casual, beer-obsessed gastropub. With more tenants like these, the market is on its way to gaining the momentum -- and the critical mass -- that could fulfill this venue's potential.
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