Renato Zagal, originally from Morelos, Mexico, opened Gorditas El Gordo in 2004. In the kitchen of the unassuming restaurant, chefs knead corn flour into masa dough for fresh tortillas, huaraches, sopes, and other vehicles for savory meats and grilled vegetables. Diners choose from fillings such as beef shoulder, pork ribs in red sauce, or longaniza— a Mexican sausage. Mexican sodas, horchata, or refreshing hibiscus water washes it all back.
The former owner of local hotspot Taco Morelos, restaurateur Gaspar Perez now reigns over the kitchen at Las Teresitas Mexican Grill. Here, he's ramped up his well-known Mexican favorites with high-quality ingredients and bold flavors, and this time, he's keeping the entire operation in the family. According to City Pages—which awarded Las Teresitas the 2012 Best Taco award for its chorizo taco—Perez's wife waits tables as his cousin cooks up fajitas, mole chicken, and tacos stuffed with brisket, Mexican-style barbecue pork, or beef cheek. The family's even in the restaurant's name, which Perez chose in honor of his mother (Teresa) and his daughter (also Teresa), who gained popularity at Taco Morelos for greeting customers at the door with a smile and fresh tortilla chips.
The free chips are still a thing. In the center of the casual dining room stands a complementary chips-and-salsa bar, showcasing a spread of nine colorful homemade salsas in varying degrees of heat. Perez encourages guests to sample these salsas—which include tomato chipotle and chili de arbol varieties—and use them to customize their meals or secretly spice up a friend's horchata.
At El Burrito Cubano, a family of epicureans funnels three decades of restaurant experience into a menu of build-your-own burritos and classic sandwiches. The clan's Cuban heritage infuses sandwiches stuffed with roasted pork, ham, swiss cheese, and pickles, which diners may recognize from the lunch menu of one of their other restaurants, Conga Latin Bistro. Brimming with seafood ceviche, curried tilapia, or shrimp creole, the Burrito Marinero summons maritime flavors as vibrant as Poseidon's party yacht. Tropical beverages such as pineapple-mango smoothies and strawberry-melon punch add a dose of sweetness.
Qdoba's burrito baristas handcraft a catering menu of Mexican-inspired cuisine, customizable with a panoply of fresh ingredients for a taco, nacho, or burrito bar. Qdoba's culinary crafters craft succulent fillings for burritos, tacos, nachos, and quesadillas, including protein-packing choices, such as slow-roasted pulled pork, adobo-marinated grilled steak or chicken, and spiced shredded or ground beef, with vegetarian options also available. Taste the gooey flavor accents of the signature queso sauce, a three-cheese blend with roasted poblanos, tomatoes, and jalapeños, the pinto or black beans simmered in cumin and onion, or the creamy, hand-smashed guacamole that's ideal for filling up Queen Elizabeth's diamond-studded guacamole chalice. Tortilla chips with salsa bar and desserts complete each catered event, and customers can opt for burrito-boxed lunches and any add-ons.
Cocina Latina has been featured in Mpls.St.Paul and Heavy Table for its authentic and affordable Ecuadorian dishes. Gently dip your taste buds' toes into the menu's waters with a trio of empanadas ($4.50) or maduro con queso, plantains so lovingly fried they make bananas yellow with jealousy ($3.99). Bandera combines rice, goat stew, beef-tripe stew, and shrimp ceviche into an adventurous appetite's dream come true ($11.99), and bandeja latina presents a mix of pork cracklings, fried egg, rice, beans, corn cakes, avocado, and sweet plantains so hearty it will stick to neighbors' ribs ($12.99). Despite the restaurant's mastery of meats, vegetarian options exist, such as plato vegetariano, a four-legged-friendly medley of rice, beans, red potato, avocado, plantain, and cassava root ($9.99). Finicky tykes unimpressed with cultural authenticity can nibble chicken fingers or mac 'n' cheese ($3.99 each).
The ruleta wheel at Pancho Villa Mexican Restaurant sends tablefuls of friends into a frenzy when one of the bunch is chosen to take a spin. Landing on the right space in this wheel can grant the entire table free drinks from a selection of specialty margaritas and cocktails. This is just one of the ways the staff amps up the festive atmosphere in the restaurant—there's also karaoke every night Thursday through Sunday. And thanks to the flat screen televisions, patrons can keep an eye on their favorite teams as they face off with rivals or trade secrets for keeping their shoelaces tied.
Patrons come as much for the atmosphere as they do for the menu of chicken flautas, cheese enchiladas, shrimp chimichangas, pork ribs, and other traditional Mexican cuisine. When the weather's nice they can dine outside, where umbrellas protect their entrees from the sun's sticky fingers. Regular lunch specials and the Monticello location's lunch buffet make midday dining even more enticing.