Growing up on the East Side, I felt that I had certain birthrights. One of those was easy access to great Hot Dago sandwiches. It never even occurred to me that the name was offensive, until I used the phrase in front of a New Yorker. As an East Sider, I have always been able to get one at Yarusso Bros. or the Dari-ette any time.
But as time passes, different waves of immigrants settled on the East Side, including a now-sizable Latino community. Ten years ago, if you wanted a decent taco, you had to cross the Robert Street bridge to the West Side, or take the 21 down Lake Street in Minneapolis. Now, I would argue that Dayton’s Bluff has some of the best Mexican and Salvadoran food in the state.
Mañana Restaurant y Pupuseria, 828 7th Street East, St. Paul, MN (651) 793-8482
Taqueria Los Paisanos, 825 7th Street East, St. Paul, MN (651) 778-8062
La Cabaña, 863 7th Street East, St. Paul, MN (651) 774-7547
Taqueria Los Ocampo, 895 Arcade Street East, St. Paul (651) 774-7623
I offer, as proof, Exhibits A-D, and tell you that the epicenter for your next carnitas and chorizo fix is Arcade and East 7th Street. From this point, there are four restaurants that would make Vicente Fox jealous. First, there is Mañana, a Salvadoran pupuseria, and across the street is Taqueria Los Paisanos. About a half a block east on 7th Street is La Cabaña and about three blocks north on Arcade, in Seeger Square, is Taqueria Los Ocampo.
Mañana is the first and best pupuseria in the state. This is a Central American specialty dish that consists of handmade corn pastries filled with cheese, beans, or slow simmered flavored meats. It is served with a side of hot sauce for dipping and curtido, a fermented cabbage side that is similar to a Korean kim chi. The pupusa costs between $1.50 and $2.50 a piece and are cheaper if you purchase a set of three. In addition to the pupusa, I usually get a burrito, which is served with a side of rice and beans for $6.50, and large glass of Horchata when I go to Mañana. Horchata is a Mexican drink made with cinnamon, milk and rice, and is great for quenching a good spice thirst.
Taqueria Los Paisanos, I believe, is the oldest Mexican restaurant in the area, and specializes in tortas, or Mexican sandwiches, and tacos. Paisanos is the quickest restaurant, so it is a good option if you are in a hurry, or on a lunch break. But it is all still freshly prepared before your eyes as they have an open kitchen next to the registers. My favorite torta is the Cubano. It comes with jalapeños, two types of pork, avocados, queso, lettuce, tomatoes and onions on a soft roll.
La Cabaña seems to be a favorite among Spanish speakers. It is also known for its karaoke and wide array of Mexican beers, such as Modelo, Pacifico, Corona and Bohemia, which are always served with a frosty mug. This is my favorite place to go for tacos, made simple, with your choice of meat on two corn tortillas, con cilantro y onions. Upon taking your seat, you receive complimentary tortilla chips that were freshly made in back and served warm, along with three salsas. In addition to the tacos, I sometimes order a couple of sopes, which are fried corn tortillas loaded with spiced meat, queso, avocado and salsa.
Los Ocampo has a couple of important factors that make it special. First, it is open until 4:00 am on Friday and Saturday nights, so after a couple of Hamm’s at the Arcade Bar, Vogel’s, or Governors, you can walk on over to Los Ocampo for the spiciest tacos known to man. They offer you a couple of sauces with your tacos, but the pale green salsa is to this day the spiciest food that I have ever eaten. Ocampo is a pioneer in the Twin Cities food scene, as it was one of the first real authentic taquerias to pop up on Lake Street and has slowly expanded across the metro and now has two East Side locations. In addition to the Arcade street location, they have a new restaurant in the former Baker’s Square building, near Target. This Suburban Avenue location is a nice, very clean sit down restaurant, with plenty of parking. They serve up the authentic dishes, but with a spice level more appropriate for the Battle Creek neighbors, who are not accustomed to the heat. They also have a full bar, if you are interested in a margarita with your meal.
With these four restaurants, I challenge anyone who still thinks that you have to drive down Cesar Chavez Boulevard to find a decent taqueria, because – in addition to Dago sandwiches – tortas, tacos, and pupusas are now also birthright of all East Siders. Now if only some Serbians would move in to the neighborhood, I would not have to drive to Milwaukee every time I want a Burek.