When I ask Cantina Laredo executive chef Mauricio Legorreta to describe the food he ate growing up, he says the word “healthy” a lot. He says “fresh” a lot, too. He takes me back to his grandmother’s kitchen, in a little town 40 miles outside of Mexico City, at a volcano’s edge.
“My grandma would say ‘What would you like for dinner?’ in the morning,” he says. “I would tell her whatever I wanted, and then they would go out to the market and buy everything. So I grew up eating really, really, really good, and really healthy.”
He pursued cooking expertise of his own as a 25-year-old after moving to the United States. He began craving the food from back home, but didn’t know what he was doing. No recipes, just instincts. His first official gig in the States was working for TGI Friday’s, but he graduated from college and ventured off into the corporate world.
He wasn’t there long.
“When you’re young, you’re in the restaurant business just until you find your real job,” he says. “I looked for my real job, and then I didn’t like my real job. So I went back.”
He worked his way back up from the back kitchen at Perkins, to a regional kitchen trainer at Macaroni Grill, to a sous chef at Redstone in Plymouth, to the executive chef at Rosa Mexicano downtown. Now, he’s part of a culinary community that’s getting more attention than ever at the Mall of America.
Legorreta is doing everything he can to bring diners back to that kitchen at the volcano’s edge. He states an emphasis on fresh ingredients, but so does everyone … but how many restaurants wheel a cart to the side of your table and smash your guacamole together before your very eyes?
I watch my server open up avocados and clobber them. I watch tomatoes, cilantro, peppers, onions, and lots of chopped jalapeño pieces go in. Legorreta encourages me to eat while he talks, but warns me to pace myself because I’ve got a lot coming my way. He tells me about first arriving in the U.S., attending school in Kansas, and flying to the Twin Cities for the first time.
Or at least trying to.
“When I was on the plane coming here, and I think it was in Dallas, [the screens] didn’t say Minneapolis,” he says. “It said Twin Cities. And I was like, ‘Hey, I’m sorry, I’m not going to the Twin Cities. I’m going to Minneapolis.’ That’s how ignorant I was.
“And I came in in January, so when I landed I’m like, ‘Oh, look.’ Everything looked white, everything looked cool, until I came outside.”
Legorreta has lived in Minnesota for 23 years, and has been married for 17 to a Bloomington native. He says the people of Minnesota are really nice – “People in general are nice,” he says, “but here they are extremely nice.” – but admits he still doesn’t know what a typical winter looks like in Minnesota.
“Every year, my father-in-law will say, ‘Oh, it’s too cold, not cold enough, too much snow, not enough snow,’” he says. “It’s never a typical winter.”
I didn’t tell Legorreta this at the time, but the most important dish of the night was the very first thing he brought out: a pair of tamales.
My love affair with tamales dates all the way back to my childhood. They were the signature dish of hot, lazy summers in California when we visited family. I’d drink an ICEE the size of my whole upper body at the 7-11 down the street, waste a roll of quarters playing Street Fighter, go back and gorge myself on my great aunt’s tamales.
To compare anyone else’s tamales to the ones my great aunt made is an unfair fight, but I really liked these tamales. The masa and pulled beef slice clean, once you get done admiring it. Tomatillo sauce moves its temperature needle, but a clip off that avocado slice will cool it back down if you need it to.
I wave off his warning to pace myself and eat both tamales. No problem! And then six tacos show up.
Three ahi tuna tacos are first, hard-shelled, with a healthy dallop of chipotle aioli and a heap of pickled onions. Three soft-shell tacos come after that with mahi mahi, brisket, and marinated beef. These aren’t the kind of tacos that take you back to an after-bar party; these are the kind of tacos that take you back someplace relaxing, like an island or the musical interlude of a really good yacht rock track.
“I never know which is my favorite,” Legorreta says at one point. I suggest taking the ahi tuna tacos, but I certainly wouldn’t leave any of them.
Of everything on the menu, it’s the mole sauce that really brings Legorreta home. It’s a concert of peppers, nuts, tomatillos, spices, sesame seeds, brown sugar, and chocolate … to name a few. That’s not much, really, when you consider Oaxacan mole sauces often contain more than 20 ingredients.
Mole sauce dates back hundreds of years in Mexico. National Public Radio offers an origin story, and it’s a fascinating read. Today, mole is referred by several sources as Mexico’s national dish.
You can imagine, then, why Legorreta would want so badly to get it right.
“I’m very passionate about certain things, but I’m very picky how we make the mole here because I like to make it,” he says. “I learned with a chef that was very good about the mole. She taught me the color of everything has to be the same, how to blend it properly, when you put the chocolate in, and all that kind of stuff.”
A plate of mole sauce is set down, smothering a chicken enchilada, with a squiggle of sour cream and a flick of cheese. Legorreta takes in a big breath and acts out his lungs with his hands.
“A good mole makes you feel alive,” he says.
When he returns to my table, the plate is completely scraped clean. And I feel alive.
I’ve never tasted lime in a margarita quite like the way I tasted lime in Cantina’s signature Casa Rita. It’s tequila and triple sec, with fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juices. And they mean fresh-squeezed: bar manager Jay Zehring estimates 80 limes are squeezes every morning at the bar.
“Lotta blood sweat and tears go into those margaritas,” he says. The sacrifices pay off. The Cosa Rita is the best margarita I’ve had since Pajarito’s habanero margarita. Before that one, I’d have to go back years.
A few minutes later, Zehring comes back with a strawberry mint margarita with muddled strawberries, agave nectar, orange liqueur, mint, and more lime. It awakens old spirits in me, spirits that would close down the Mexican restaurant in Superior’s Mariner Mall, Guadalajara. My now-wife and I would discreetly make out in their hand-carved booths, but not really discreetly. We would drink fishbowl-sized strawberry margaritas together, but we would never share one.
It’s not the same, obviously. The margaritas at Guadalajara were booze bombs, puked out of a shush mixer and into a huge glass. If you didn’t get an ice shaving stuck in your straw, friend, you were at the wrong bar. The strawberry mint at Cantina is full-flavored and refreshing, but I can’t help but smile when a strawberry seed gets lodged in my straw.
Finally, Zehring brings me out a “skinny blood orange smash,” that lands under 120 calories. It’s made with calorie-free triple sec, a packet of Splenda, blood orange SKYY vodka, basil leaves, and lemon juice. It’s a fine cocktail for its mission, but you can’t miss the margaritas. If you drove to the Mall of America, and secured a parking spot without using violence, a Cosa Rita is a just reward. Calorie calculators be damned.
“Your blog’s got the wrong name!” Leggoreta says with a laugh. “You’re not going to be Skinny much longer!”
Cantina Laredo is technically part of a chain, but this is Minnesota’s only location. Their presence is thickest in Texas and Florida (10 and 5 locations, respectively). Locations are sprinkled over California, Alabama, Missouri, Abu Dhabi, and Arkansas, to name a few.
A corporate structure this widely-spanning doesn’t mean Leggoreta compromises on the quality of his ingredients, though.
“My suppliers, they know I will send back a lot of things if they’re not up to par,” he says. “I’m very, very picky on the products that we get in.”
He brings up the size of poblano peppers. He says they somtimes look like jalapeños, though they’re supposed to be much bigger. During our chat, a carne asada meal hits me with a skirt steak blanketing a stuffed poblano pepper. This poblano pepper? Elon Musk could load two or three jalapeños into it and blast it off into space. Legorreta more practically fills it with onions and chimichurri sauce.
It’s a straightforward, enjoyable dish you’ll enjoy if you’re not quite ready for the trippy pickled onions or the mindblow of mole sauce. A pair of chicken enchiladas are similarly approachable, so plowable: pulled chicken with crispy tortilla pieces and poblano sour cream.
I’m set to throw in the napkin when my server, Angie, rolls up with another cart. This time she’s wheeling a skillet, cinnamon ice cream, and a slice of apple pie. She takes a cup of brandy butter and pours it into the pan. Smoke billows up and dissipates quickly. The ice cream just melts a little, and the apple pie droops just a tad. The butter caramelizes in the bottom of the skillet, and I’m just stupid enough to dip my fork into it and try taking a bite. Don’t do that.
It’s a show, and it’s a very nice dessert. I eat the whole slice of pie and the whole scoop of ice cream with the stomach space I said I didn’t have, and take a few bites of a mango vanilla cake topped with blueberries.
A little bit of this, and some guacamole, make it home to my wife. We eat the guacamole together. We eat the cake together, too, but she doesn’t really share it.
You can find more information about Cantina Laredo on their website.