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 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. 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.
What they've created is something truly special. Let's set aside for a moment that Castillon 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 teasingly rich milk buns from the neighboring Salty Tart bakery, and then Castillon stuffs them with abandon. The starring attraction could be tender, wickedly seasoned slow-braised pork, or a thick and juicy pesto-brushed chicken breast, 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.
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, expertly sauted onions, 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.
The market has proved such a successful launch pad that Castillon and Badilla are eyeballing sites in the nearby Longfellow neighborhood, and hope to open their full-service restaurant next year.
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.
At the Left Handed Cook in the market, 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.
The rice bowls 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 this cooking.
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 nice. Next up for the couple: a chef's counter, with a tasting-style menu; 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 this venue has always promised.
Location:920 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-871-1900. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun.
THE LEFT HANDED COOK
Location:920 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-208-0428. Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun.