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First Look: El Jefe Cocina & Bar brings killer tacos and serious spice to southwest Minneapolis

The charming little bar.

The charming little bar. Sarah Chandler

If you grew up in southwest Minneapolis in the last three-quarters of the twentieth century, the odds are good that at some point you saw a film at the circa-1933, Art Deco Boulevard Theater. Its iconic lipstick red marquee still dominates the business district stretching down Lyndale between Minnehaha Creek and 54th Street.

The last time I saw a film at the Boulevard was in the late 1990s, and I remember us complaining that the price had been raised to $1.50, a near-travesty considering that the Boulevard, throughout my childhood, was widely known as the “dollar theater.” In other words, it was the place you might sneak into an R-rated movie a dozen times for the grand total of $12. Hüsker Dü fans will also know the Boulevard for its cameo appearance in the song “Eiffel Tower High” on the Minneapolis band’s 1986 release Candy Apple Grey.

When the once-elegant, later threadbare Boulevard closed to the dismay of local residents, it was replaced by–irony of ironies–a Hollywood Video Store, which instantly stripped all personality from the block. Hurray, then, that some of that authentic charm has been restored by the May 2018 arrival of El Jefe Cocina & Bar.

The enchiladas aren't your Tex-Mex variety.

The enchiladas aren't your Tex-Mex variety. Sarah Chandler

By authentic charm, certainly one of the most overused phrases in the restaurant industry, what I mean is that El Jefe isn’t trying to be anything but itself, and it succeeds on that front. You can’t help but smile when you walk through the doors and catch your first glimpse of the fetching little bar, adorned with bright teal tiles and Day of the Dead skulls. It reminded me of an adorable spot where I once sipped margaritas on Mexico’s lovely Isla Mujeres.

Tempted by the ceviche–there are three appealing choices, including sushi-grade tuna and shrimp–we skipped over appetizers like elote (grilled corn) and nachos and went straight to the tacos. It’s a tough choice between the chicken tinga and the beer-battered fish: The latter, laced with cilantro, fresh pico de gallo, and chipotle crema, would be a hit at the Minnesota State Fair. They fulfill that hankering for “something fried” without the later regret that often follows eating “something fried.”

Drinks are tasty: interesting enough, but not overpowering. My Tangletown cocktail–the closest drink on the menu to a house margarita–came with a price tag ($10) and ingredients (Cazadores Reposado, Cointreau, house-made sour mix) that put it a cut above the standard version. The Some Like It Hot, another margarita variation, featured a spicy rim that offered a nice contrast with the sweetness of the agave. And we appreciated the fact that neither were too strong.

Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler

That’s right, not too strong. I could taste the tequila but it didn’t knock me off my chair, and that’s a good thing. Horror of horrors, you ask, am I getting old and boring? (Maybe.) Do I not realize a cocktail should pack a punch? (Yes, I do.) Yet here’s the thing. The last time I ordered a margarita in this town, in a NE Minneapolis establishment I will not name, it was so strong that I nearly sent it back with a request that will generally get you laughed out of a bar: Could you make it, ahem, a little weaker? That’s not because I don’t appreciate a good margarita, but because one drink should be balanced–and shouldn’t be so potent that you’re tipsy when you walk out of the bar.

The real star here, you’ll soon learn, is the salsa. Owner and chef Miguel Urrutia laughs when he describes how he was initially reticent to introduce the neighborhood to, for example, his ghost pepper salsa. That was until he spotted more than one patron mixing this knock-your-socks off stuff with tear-inducing habanero salsa.

“That surprised me,” he says with a wry smile.

It surprises me, too: It may be safe to say that for many decades, the hottest thing you could procure at a restaurant in this neighborhood were the red pepper flakes at longtime Beek’s Pizza, which burned down in 2013 in a non-spice related incident.

When the chicken enchiladas arrive, I’m ashamed to admit my mild disappointment that they aren’t, well, cheesy. (I blame years of great Tex-Mex in Austin, Texas.) Yet the rojo sauce is rich and nuanced, almost like a mole, and the sprinkles of cotija lend a bit of creaminess.

Fried fish tacos that won't leave you with a fried fish feeling.

Fried fish tacos that won't leave you with a fried fish feeling. Sarah Chandler

While he’s spent more than two decades in the Twin Cities since he first came in 1994 to open the Mall of America’s Rainforest Cafe, chef Urrutia hails from the Mexican state of Guanajuato. It’s a gorgeous place, home to picturesque towns like Leon and San Miguel, and it’s important to note that Guanajuato-style enchiladas are a completely different beast from the Tex-Mex style. They’re lighter and spicier, and they don’t trigger a cheese hangover.

Back in 2013, Chef Urrutia began selling salsas at the Prior Lake Farmers Market, and public reception was so good, he opened up the El Jefe food truck two years later. Lured by the salsa, people clamored for the tacos, too. These days, the nine salsas currently listed on a wall-mounted chalkboard run the gamut from a mild salsa verde to the hottest, the ghost pepper, and Urrutia says he plans to introduce something even hotter: a scorpion pepper salsa.

“Scorpion,” I murmur. “That even sounds deadly.”

“Yes. It’s even too spicy for me,” he laughs, and I silently dare myself to return and brave the dreaded scorpion.

El Jefe Cocina & Bar
5309 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-236-4791; eljefecuisine.com