nico’s tacos, tequila, and nostalgia
credit: Twin Cities Restaurant Blog
There are a few spaces in Minneapolis that I refer to as restaurant black holes. Maybe you know what I mean. These kitchens are like extended-stay hotels, with new concepts fluttering in and out within a year (sometimes far less). Off the top of my head, I think of Cafe Zeno, which was once located at Hennepin and Lagoon. Gone since my college years, never to have been effectively replaced in any sustained fashion, the restaurant had killer dessert and a craveable happy hour. The patio made it even more inviting.
Not far away, the awkwardly shaped space that once held Jewish deli, Rye, and Auriga before that, is still empty. Explanations naturally abound – poor parking, rising price of beef, among others.
But my most fondly remembered now-revolving-door space is an old converted house, also on Hennepin Ave. It is a wannabe Victorian appropriate to the Isles and Kenwood neighborhoods which stand behind it.
I recall, at age 15, countless Sunday nights full of many cynical musings which occurred in a certain overstuffed chair at Pandora’s Cup Coffee. I remember thinking how cool I was, how gritty. They served lattes in glass shaker pints while incense and other varieties of smoke filled the air. Guests were mainly the artsy/brooding type. Some had notebooks or playing cards. Others occupied themselves by emphatically wearing dark clothing and cheap eyeliner. Screw Caribou, I thought, this is so … real.
image: TC Daily Planet
After an explanation or two, my mom stopped asking why I came home smelling so badly. After all, I had zero interest in cigarettes, and only visited my favorite secret after afternoon church, anyway. It was the cafe miel I was after. None of my friends knew what that was, and I loved that about Pandora’s Cup.
Naturally, now that I have a driver’s license and no one to whom I must justify my choices, it is only fitting that Pandora’s is gone. The day it closed, likely due to the smoking ban, broke my teenage heart just a bit.
I won’t waste time researching what was there between then and now. I barely remember, and neither do you. Probably half a dozen things.
Nico’s Taco and Tequila Bar now lives in the house. “Inspired by traditional Mexican street food, using indigenous herbs and spices used throughout the very heart of mexico. Chef Alejandro Victoria brings authentic recipes from his homeland in Michoacan to your plate.” – Nico’s
I’ll get right to it. I visited Nico’s on a Wednesday afternoon and was in the mood for a big lunch at a quality restaurant. Irritated that most of my must-try restaurants are dinner-only, I landed on Nico’s.
The menu is moderate in its scope, from small plates and appetizers, to combination platters and individual tacos.
An impressive tequila and mezcal list plus a well-stocked tap system make this a great happy hour or late night spot, but most of the food was only fair.
My ultimate weakness, classic elote-style corn, was unevenly cooked. One end tasted green and the other was charred so black I had to wash my hands. On the other hand, the salsa was bright and fresh with better than average corn chips. The three tacos were hit or miss, too. The carnitas taco was a bit sad. The meat was under-seasoned and generally lacking interest. A bit of an improvement was the shrimp taco, with more citrus zing. These tacos were naked – nothing aside from the meat listed on the menu was actually present on the tortilla apart from a leaf or two of cilantro.
If you must try a taco, go with the Lengua, which is perfectly cooked to beef tongue divinity.
And now for the booze.
We were not ashamed. The Reposado flight is comprised of tequilas that have been aged for a modest amount of time. For $14 we were able to taste Tres Agaves, Casa Noble, and Partida. An interesting grassy and woody aroma came from the nearly clear glass of Tres Agaves – almost spicy like horseradish. The taste, however, is sweet with charred wood notes and expected heat. The Partida smells like citrus and cinnamon with similar flavors in the mouth.
By far the stand-out choice in the flight was the Casa Noble. It contained incredible toffee-caramel notes, akin to butterscotch. The flavor was so well-developed with prominent vanilla that this must have been aged on oak. It was sweet without being sugary, the way a mole sauce or dark chocolate is sweet.
I would go back to Nico’s for a drink and the nostalgia of my favorite coffee shop, but wouldn’t recommend venturing deeply into the taco section of the menu. Surefire tequilas and solid beer choices mean I won’t avoid the place, but when the revolving restaurant door revolves again, I won’t be shocked.