Minnesota Spoon: Tacos and timing with chef Jorge Guzman

Tacos and salads // Photo by Wing Ta

Pork tacos and side dishes from chef Jorge Guzman and The Growler’s resident chef Jon Wipfli // Photo by Wing Ta

At some point early on Sunday afternoon, I looked up from my work as enthusiastic-but-mostly-unskilled sous chef, and felt a pang of concern. This was not coming together.

We were all over the map. Jon Wipfli, The Growler’s resident chef, was downstairs fussing with his new smoker on the sidewalk. Somebody was out on the terrace grilling radish tops. Why were we grilling radish tops? Smoke rose from the stovetop, where somebody was searing halved spring onions on a screaming hot skillet, while a pot of potatoes rumbled and steamed, seemingly unmonitored, on an adjacent burner. We were cooking for what we hoped would be a crowd of 40-50 arriving in a couple of hours. There was a mound of admittedly beautiful, but still whole and unprocessed, organic vegetables and herbs on the counter.

I had just finished dearticulating a head of cauliflower with a slow and earnest precision that would have filled any actual line cook with a kind of anguish. I looked around the kitchen. Although I am no chef, I can usually see where a meal is headed this close to serving time. But all I could discern, standing at my improvised and messy prep station, was the smell of vegetable char and lime juice, and the generalized bustle of a train station full of people with tickets to different destinations.

Chef Jorge Guzman // Photo by Wing Ta

Chef Jorge Guzman // Photo by Wing Ta

At the much neater prep station to my left stood the source of all this swirl—chef Jorge Guzman of the newly award-winning Surly restaurant Brewer’s Table. Shaved head and beard, complicatedly tattooed left arm, and built like someone who had spent time lifting heavy things, Guzman wore baggy black shorts, a black T-shirt, and a black-and-white bandanna around his collar like a cravat. It served to cushion the back of his neck from the weight of his apron strap, but it also managed to elevate his outfit into something with a kind of elegant swagger. Tupac meets Cary Grant.

He was responding to the rising crisis by calmly answering every question asked of him by his untrained, ad hoc kitchen staff, while simultaneously lining up small groups of carrots and slicing them into whisper-thin, bias-cut slices with a speed that made my efforts on the cauliflower look like something done underwater.

He paused to sweep my hard-won pile of florets into a bowl of summer vegetables, without appearing to feel any urgency about the hungry people who, at this moment, were preparing to leave for Jon Wipfli’s 2pm pop-up taco party.

With a slightly stern, but low-key patience, he set me to work slicing zucchini and yellow squash into rings, then salting them on one side, and searing them—salted side only—on a hot skillet. It wasn’t until later that I would realize I had just been shown the simplest and most elegant way of making zucchini interesting I’d ever run across. The sear gave flavor and color to the otherwise bland squash, but searing on one side instead of two kept the zucchini from turning to mush.

Photos by Wing Ta

The whole day went like that. Inside our temporary foreman’s shaved head was a blueprint, and it all made sense in there. The tasks he assigned us each led somewhere, or built on some other task—even leading us occasionally to a point of minor epiphany as we finally caught up to what he’d had in mind the whole time. We were the framers, the masons, the electricians, the plumbers, and the drywallers, working on our discreet and seemingly unrelated jobs, as, gradually, chef Guzman’s house took shape before our eyes.

It took shape in the form of an escabeche salad, improvised that morning at the Kingfield Farmers’ Market, where our group had converged on bikes from various corners of the Twin Cities. The finished salad included some, by then, familiar bias-cut carrot slices, some very precise cauliflower florets, and some seared zucchini rings, along with radish shavings, basil, and mint, in a vinaigrette that would have been too tart on a lettuce salad but was a perfect complement to the mature lusciousness of the summer vegetables.

It took shape in the form of a spring onion salad, tossed in olive oil and sweetened with the onions’ own seared sugars.

It took shape in the form of those potatoes, which had not been abandoned after all, but cooked just to the firm side of al dente. They were destined for a kind of potato salad—not Pastor Inqvist’s potato salad, but rather the potato salad of a Minnesota chef born in the Yucatán. The potatoes were drained and set in the smoker, before they were halved and tossed with mole sauce,  chili oil, lime vinaigrette, some of the dark chopped radish tops, and plenty of coarse salt. They were a bracing reminder of potatoes’ origins not as mild survival food for northern Europeans, but as an Incan staple just south of the equator. My test bite was maybe the most intense, complex, and completely satisfying mouthful of potato I have ever experienced.

And those were the side dishes.

Photos by Wing Ta

The star of the show were the tacos, which had begun two nights ago as a half-dozen pork shoulders, rubbed in kosher salt, black pepper, and cayenne, and smoked for nine-and-a-half hours at 217 degrees. The shoulders were coated in black char, and fell off the bone into threaded, glistening slices that steamed on the cutting board before getting chopped up with cleavers. The sauces included a smoked tomato salsa, a salsa verde, and a puya sauce—made from puya peppers and tomatoes—the color of a peeled carrot.

A few hungry guests had begun to congregate on the street, when, at precisely 1:45pm, Chef Guzman announced that we were ready, and quietly, without ceremony, turned his volunteer army of cooks into servers. We began carrying jars of puya sauce and bowls of escabeche salad and trays of paper serving boats and plastic forks down the stairs, to be served from the tailgate of a pickup truck on a hot Minneapolis sidewalk. We hailed from Minneapolis and St. Paul, from Shoreview and Bloomington and Wausau, Wisconsin. We hailed more distantly from Germany and France and Norway. And Romania and China and the Yucatán.

We were an American crew on a summer day, bringing food to a barbecue.

Down on the sidewalk, next to the smoker, chef Guzman kept working, heating tortillas and chopping pork. Wiping his face with his street fashionable bandanna. A quiet and mostly still presence amid a swirl of people he had made loudly happy.

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