Minnesota Taco Atlas Update: Prieto’s tempura, El Kevin’s tripas, and the existential quandary of the Lone Spur Grill

Tacos sit near the window at Prieto // Photo by Victoria Campbell

We’ve added 12 new entries to our Minnesota Taco Atlas—bringing the grand total in this compendium of carnitas and barbacoa to 82 spots around the Twin Cities Metro.

A few thoughts on our recent additions:

Prieto Taqueria Bar, Lyn-Lake Minneapolis

We didn’t know that Alejandro Castillon could come up with a better shrimp tempura taco than the legendary bright-red rendition he perfected at Sonora Grill. But dammit if he didn’t do just that at Prieto, where remarkably tender tortillas are made from fresh-ground corn. A stellar drinks program is a bonus.

Tacos el Kevin, Powderhorn Minneapolis

We don’t know who Kevin is, or if he actually exists, or why the weathered sign looks like it’s been affixed to the outside of the Portland Market for a generation. But we do know good tripe when we taste it—largely because most of the time we taste tripe, it’s not good. But El Kevin pulls it off—the squiggly bits receive a beautiful char on the flat top, and the pungent rojo salsa is the perfect foil to cut the fatty richness.

Kahlo Restaurante Mexicano, Northfield

This taco spot is named for the artist Frida Kahlo and dominated by her portrait, an appropriately highbrow reference to tie into the zeitgeist of a college town like Northfield. But the food is anything but snooty—soulful housemade salsas complement tacos loaded down with shredded cheese and lettuce. And while we’re sometimes detractors of dairy-focused (some would say Americanized) tacos, these work—they’re balanced, elegant and downright tasty.

Jackfruit Tacos at Mean Miners in Eagan // Photo by Tony Saunders

Mean Miner’s Tacos, Eagan

Mean Miner’s boasts a polished web presence and contemporary interior, amenities that can sometimes foreshadow prefabricated food decanted from plastic bags. But the flavors of Mean Miner’s are bold and deep, and the tacos are made with real care. As an added bonus: the restaurant’s jackfruit tacos make an earthy and nuanced taco experience fully accessible to diners avoiding meat.

Tacos el Paraiso, Minneapolis

Sometimes the best tacos roll off an unassuming food truck, and that’s certainly the case with the soft-spoken Tacos el Paraiso. Our taco al pastor was textbook delicious, and an asada taco was equally neat and classically presented.

Tacos from Las Tortillas in Rosemount // Photo by Tj Turner

Las Tortillas, Rosemount

Somewhat to our surprise—but right on point in terms of the name—Las Tortillas makes their own flour tortillas fresh daily. This makes a real difference—a tortilla isn’t just a vehicle for filling, it’s a major component of texture and (to a lesser extent) flavor, and it’s the unifying factor that ties a taco or burrito together. That the restaurant also does a unique (to our experience) beef pastor that’s punchy and packed with flavor is a serious added bonus.

Tacos Lupita, Morris Park Minneapolis

And one more entry in the “excellent variety meats” category: get the lengua at Tacos Lupita, located in a small Crosstown stripmall on the frontage road north of Highway 62 and the airport. All of their tacos are quite good, and bottles of three different, all wonderful, housemade salsas will be delivered to your table.

Sabroso Tacos and Burritos

Never discount the parking lot-dwelling taco truck, as it’s often the source of unexpected culinary delights. Case in point, the moist, tender, beefy barbacoa taco at Sabroso, a truck that’s perched near the Mississippi River on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul. Cash or checks only, please!

Viva México at Flag Foods

Taquerias come in all guises, ranging from humble trailers to standalone restaurants with sophisticated cocktail programs (see Prieto, above.) Viva México falls somewhere in the middle of the pack—a counter located inside of a South Minneapolis convenience store, serving up inexpensive tacos and salsa for those in the know. The pollo en adobo (pulled chicken tacos) are among the best of its sort around, full of savory flavor and tender in texture.

Taberna Street Tacos, Minneapolis

Taberna offers a handful of classic street tacos, but this new-school taqueria really excels at producing innovative (and maybe heretical?) varieties of taco, including the Banh Mi, Thai Curry, and “Healthy” (whatever that means). We tried the New England (fried clams and slaw) taco and found it delicious – skillfully fried and a good balance of filling to tortilla made for a light, pleasing snack.

Taco Teresa’s, Plymouth

A new street taco concept from the owners of the local Teresa’s Mexican Restaurant chain seems to be the most popular lunch joint near Medicine Lake. And with good reason: go for the mountainous container of free tortilla chips complemented by a homemade salsa bar filled with about 10 different options; stay for the well-executed street tacos (get the campechanos, a mix of carne asada and chorizo.)

Lone Spur Grill, Hopkins

By James Norton

The fish tacos at the Lone Spur Grill and Bar in Hopkins, Minnesota arrive at the table enrobed in shredded iceberg lettuce and two-tone shredded industrial cheese. The “fish” is nuggetized—nothing but nearly identical chunks of salty, indifferently breaded flaky neutrality. The warm flour tortillas couldn’t be any more aggressively Caucasian if they’d been purchased at a nearby gas station.

As soon as they arrive at the table, I ask for my check. I know how it’s going to go: I’ll take one bite, set the taco down, and sprint for the door the moment my card comes back. I end up taking a second bite to look polite for my overly concerned waitress. I’ve led her to believe that a work crisis has summoned me from the table without a to-go box, and I guess that’s not a complete lie if you keep in mind that my job is writing about food with something to say, and the crisis is the fact that these tacos are suburban malaise on a plate.

But something about that second bite triggers something. The salt level is good. Although the overall package is bland, the warmth of the tortilla is comforting, the contrast between the moistness of the fish and crispness of the lettuce and the mellowness of the aioli is acceptable.

And then it occurs to me: In a vacuum, without culinary context, without cultural baggage, without a chip on my shoulder, I would enjoy this taco.

■ ■ ■

As a food writer and taco documentarian (I’ve eaten at about 50 taquerias in Minnesota alone, and plenty more in other states and in Mexico) this is exactly the kind of taco I’m supposed to tee off on. Go to Dominguez Family Restaurant if you want a proper, classic pescado taco; go to Prieto if you want a beautifully done smoked skate and scallop tostada that riffs on some fish taco elements but presents an entirely new twist on the concept. Don’t go to Hopkins.

Or go to nearly any other independent Mexican place in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro and surf through the non-fish options: al pastor, árabes, cachete, carnitas, cecina, chorizo, lengua, picadillo, suadero, deshebrada…and on, and on, and on. Every taste distinct, full-flavored, and bursting with the snap of raw onion, the earthiness of cilantro, the seasoned depth of griddled meat, the roar of real heat from good salsa, whether bottled or made in-house.

These tacos kick the shit out of the fish tacos at Lone Spur Grill. They break a skateboard over their heads and roll them into a highway culvert and leave them for dead.

And yet: if the fish tacos at the Lone Spur Grill are your jam, you’re not a bad person because of it. You’re not even wrong—there is a balance here, there is a comfort here, there is the exhilarating feeling of leaving “American food” (circa 1960) and visiting the exotic world of appropriated Mexican-American food (circa 1985). It’s easy to hate things that remind you of where you’re from, and as a kid from 1980s-era southern Wisconsin, these fish tacos remind me of my childhood roots, before I’d tasted sushi, before I’d hit the Thai and Indian spots up and down Devon and Clark in Chicago, before I moved to Boston, and then Brooklyn and ripped open a big, crazy, colorful world of truly great food. These tacos were a salute to the bad old days of tuna casserole, loaded potatoes, and soggy, right-from-frozen green beans.

But they’re not bad.

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Two words occupy a great deal of space in the contemporary conversation about food. They are “authentic” and “appropriation.” Sometimes they’re at direct odds with one another, à la, “hey, those whitebread fish tacos are not authentic, they appropriate Mexican food and culture.” But sometimes something appropriated grows up, and learns about its own roots, and develops longstanding, authentic relationships with people, and it becomes a real thing. Syncretic, for sure, but in the truest sense of the word, a culinary immigrant – it came from somewhere, absorbed new ideas and flavors, and found a home. Tacos al pastor, Mexican by way of Lebanon, come to mind right away.

And none of this begins to address how to usefully define the word “authentic.” As it’s typically used, “authentic” means you went to China once, and the thing you had that may have been billed as mu shu pork was very different from the mu shu pork you tasted on University Avenue in St. Paul. Or maybe Leeann Chin isn’t authentic because the ingredients come out of plastic bags, and everything tends to be incredibly sweet. Or maybe it’s inauthentic because some chef just made it up—the banh mi pizza at Red Wagon, which is unquestionably a monster mash of culture and place, but is also undeniably delicious.

You say the word “authentic,” and everyone hears something different. It’s not a useful word. I’d like to use “authentic” to mean any dish where the chef and/or proprietor has a personal connection to the recipe—it’s something they brought with them from home, or slaved over to perfect, or otherwise have touched and changed with their own life experience. Maybe it’s not an authentic Peking duck in that you’d taste its equivalent on the streets of Beijing, but maybe the chef worked with four local suppliers to find the right bird for the job and then labored for six months to get taste and texture perfect according to what she wanted.

Is my definition of “authentic” authentic? Probably not, but it’s mine, which—by my definition—makes it authentic in context.

I don’t authentically love the tacos at Lone Spur Grill. I won’t return for them, and the odds are overwhelming that I’ll never return at all. But I have arrived at a place where I don’t want to kick them into a highway culvert anymore. I want to figure out where they came from, and why, and who loves them. Next time I stumble upon their equivalent, I’ll take a third bite, and a fourth, and chew thoroughly before I spit out an opinion.

Visit the Minnesota Taco Atlas to explore over 70 locations