Up in Smoke: Alejandro Castillon is using the smoker at Prieto Taqueria to unite classic Mexican fare and global techniques

Alejandro Castillon opens the door to his Oyler Pit smoker at his new restaurant, Prieto // Photo by Victoria Campbell

Alejandro Castillon opens the door to his Oyler Pit smoker at his new restaurant, Prieto // Photo by Victoria Campbell

The fiery heart of Alejandro Castillon’s new restaurant is an Oyler Pit smoker big enough to be a sauna. “It’s probably the biggest in Minneapolis,” Castillon says. The monstrous red box can cook six or seven hogs at once and it sports a hood that could comfortably vent a burning SUV. The chef’s takeover of the former Hasty Tasty space at the intersection of Lyndale and Lake in Uptown Minneapolis was partially an opportunity to tap into one of the city’s most economically vibrant neighborhoods. But, Castillon says, it was also a matter of love at first sight.

Alejandro Castillon inside the dining room of Prieto // Photo by Victoria Campbell

Alejandro Castillon inside the dining room of Prieto // Photo by Victoria Campbell

“I almost signed a lease in Excelsior after I sold Sonora [Grill] in November [of 2018],” recalls Castillon. “The week before we signed for Excelsior, the owner of this building called me and said, ‘Do you want to see my restaurant?’” Castillon wasn’t particularly interested but went anyway. It changed the course of his career. “When I saw the kitchen and the smoker I said, ‘Oh my God, I can do all the Mexican recipes with this smoker.’” Prieto was announced to the public in May of this year and it opened in June.

Castillo has been a bright light on the Minnesota food scene since the opening of Sonora Grill at Midtown Global Market in 2011. San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho wrote about Castillon in 2012 for The Heavy Table, noting: “His accessibility and out-of-the-box creativity are radically expanding our conceptions of what the food of el mundo hispanohablante could be, consistently surprising us with the scope of his imagination.”

The heart of that drive, says Castillon, starts back in Sonora, Mexico. “When I was in high school I always cooked at home with my mom,” he says. “I always paid attention in the kitchen, and I don’t know why.” That love of food fast-tracked Castillon into a culinary career, starting as a young man. “My mom owned a little restaurant in Mexico and she sold it to me when I was 17 or 18, and for me that was huge. It was not too busy, it was a very small place. After that, I went to college and moved here when I was 21.”

Grafted onto the heart of serious traditional Mexican cooking is a thick patina of influence from the Minneapolis–St. Paul food scene. “The friends I’ve worked with—Isaac Becker, Tim McKee, all these wonderful chefs who are very important in the city—they showed me how to make recipes very simple,” says Castillon, who did stints at Solera and Barrio in the aughts. That cosmopolitan perspective and thoughtful editing come through in his food at Prieto.

“When I finished with Sonora, my idea with this place was to make everything more simple,” he says. “Fresh corn and flour tortillas (we make both of them here), the meat, and the sauces, that’s it. That’s the most important thing for me—no more garnishes, no more than five things on one taco. People, the first bite, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, the flavors are all here.’ When the flavors are too rich, you get lost.”

His sense of restraint is something he shares in common with other top chefs, and it can take effort to teach minimalism to younger chefs who are eager to show off all the techniques and ingredients they’ve recently acquired. “My sous chef, he worked at Martina for a year,” says Castillon. “I hired this guy like a month ago. He said, ‘Oh, we can put the cilantro here…’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no! No garnishes.’ It’s very hard, for this guy, for there to be nothing on the plate. Of course [garnishes] look good, but that’s not my point right now. All the flavors that you need are all there.”

Making smoke and grinding masa

The interior of Prieto // Photo by Victoria Campbell

The interior of Prieto // Photo by Victoria Campbell

Prieto’s interior has a joyful intensity and minimalism that echoes the food on the plate. The palate is austere without being drab: grays, whites, and blacks are accented by washed-out aquas and wood tones that suggest the comfortable, faded feel of a remote beach. The bar, which serves up remarkably simple, refreshing, and well-balanced cocktails, is the visual heart of the space.

Photographs from southern Mexico and the Caribbean and an art installation by Matt Pfeiffer comprised of dozens of brilliantly colorful trompos—Mexican spinning tops—splash more color and interest into the front room, while the back room features a brick wall painted in fonts and colors that are a dead ringer for Mexican taquerias. Castillon explains that Coca-Cola and Pepsi give Mexican taquerias paint to decorate their walls; the paint comes in the soda’s vivid red or blue, and those same primary colors pop across the bricks here in Minneapolis.

It’s a total coincidence, but the Oyler Pit smoker is a vibrant Coca-Cola red, too. “Honestly I’m super new with a smoker,” says Castillon, who picked up a bit of experience with the machinery while working at Colita for his friend Daniel del Prado. A month and a half of recipe testing preceded the opening of Prieto, and in that time Castillon learned how to infuse a traditional Coca-Cola, cinnamon, and sweetened condensed milk carnitas recipe with enough smoke to deepen flavors, but not too much to transform it into sooty BBQ.

“Briskets, pastor, carnitas—almost all the meats except the chicken [use the smoker],” he says. “We use more like firewood in Sonora, not a smoker. It’s a grill. I use it because the flavors are a change from what else is available in the city. People love barbecue, and I want to mix these two.”

If the smoker is the heart of Prieto, the restaurant’s masa grinding machine may well be its soul. Located in Prieto’s surprisingly large and well-stocked basement, the corn grinder churns out a fine paste that is then griddled up into hundreds of fresh tortillas a day. When we visited, Prieto employee Petra Guadarrama herded a flood of kernels through the machine with quiet skill, adding water on the fly to achieve the ideal final texture.

“If you buy tortillas, you feel the chemicals; it’s such a different flavor,” says Castillon. “I don’t like white corn—I prefer blue, red, and yellow. The flavor when you try one of those tortillas is like when you’re a kid. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I remember when I went to buy tortillas for my family’—because you’d always just walk three or four blocks and buy the fresh tortillas.”

Alejandro Castillon plates tacos in the kitchen of Prieto // Photo by Victoria Campbell

Alejandro Castillon plates tacos in the kitchen of Prieto // Photo by Victoria Campbell

Castillon isn’t exaggerating: the light, chewy, fresh texture of Prieto’s tortillas is locally unique, and they make the taqueria’s dishes stand out amid a constellation of good-to-excellent taquerias on East Lake Street, in St. Paul, and throughout the region’s strip malls. They particularly shine when paired up with the exquisitely crispy, delicate shrimp that fill the restaurant’s Shrimp Tempura Taco ($6). Castillon’s shrimp tacos helped put Sonora Grill on the map and Prieto’s are even better. The contrast between the crunch of the shrimp, the rich kick of arbol mayo, and the chew of the tortilla is nothing short of a sublime experience.

Other tacos are equally compelling—we found the restaurant’s Lengua Taco ($5) to be a brilliant mash-up of earthy, rich, deeply flavored meat and bright, fresh, clean complementary flavors coming from the dish’s avocado salsa and cabbage. And the restaurant’s Ceviche ($14) is among the finest we’ve tried, a mix of smoked skate fish and scallops and an avocado-serrano salsa served over a crisp, robust tostada that brings just the right kind of crunch to complement the fish’s tender texture.

Totally on-theme for Prieto, the smoker contributes something noteworthy but balanced to the food. There’s no acrid flavor or ash-tray intensity to anything on the restaurant’s menu; when the smoker makes its mark, it’s usually with a quiet earthy deepening of flavor rather than adding any sort of aggressively smokey taste.

In essence: passion, subtlety, and balance. Writ large, that’s not a bad way to tell the story of Prieto, and the cooking of Alejandro Castillon.

Las Carnitas de Prieto

Photo by Becca Dilley

Photo by Becca Dilley

Adapted from a method by Alejandro Castillon and Prieto

Ingredients

5 pounds of pork shoulder, bone out
Carnitas dry rub (2 tbsp salt, 2 tbsp sweet and/or hot paprika, 2 tsp cinnamon whisked together)
1 can of sweetened condensed milk
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola
¼ pound of lard or vegetarian lard substitute
Tortillas and taco condiments (onions, cilantro, etc.) to garnish as you like

Directions

  1. Start up your smoker and bring it to 200°F. Use a fragrant wood such as cherry.
  2. Give your pork shoulder a brief rinse and pat it dry. Rub it down with ¼–½ of the can of sweetened condensed milk, and then sprinkle it with dry rub to cover it thoroughly.
  3. Smoke the pork shoulder for 2 hours at 200°. At the end of this process, it will still be firm and not thoroughly cooked. 30 minutes before completion, preheat oven to 220°.
  4. Put the pork shoulder in a large pan. Add ¼–½ can of sweetened condensed milk, garlic, about half the bottle of Coca-Cola, and the lard to the pan. Tent with tinfoil or otherwise cover. Cook in the oven for another 6 to 7 hours, until the meat can be pulled apart by a fork with gentle effort.
  5. Let the shoulder rest for at least 30 minutes and then pull it with two forks to fill tortillas. Garnish with minced onions, cilantro, salsa, ancho mayo, or whatever other condiments you’d like.

If you’re not ready to commit to five pounds of carnitas, you can cut the finished pork shoulder into two or three pieces, foil wrap the piece or pieces you’re not using, and freeze them in plastic bags. Rethaw in the oven at a low temperature and pull apart with forks when ready.