Mexican Food Collective K'óoben Shares Its Top Spots For Soda, Birria and More
By Mecca Bos
It’s a good time to be a diner. Like many chefs and restaurant owners, the culinarians behind K’óoben are reexamining what it means to be stewards of Mexican culinary culture.
“It’s not just tacos and quesadillas and enchiladas and all of those wonderful things,” explains Mike Hidalgo of Sonora Grill. “Mexican cuisine goes further than that.”
K’óoben is a Mayan word that means “friendship, family, collaboration and coexistence” to the Minneapolis-based food collective. In other words, the very basis of what it means to cook, eat and share.
Gustavo Romero is a native of Tulancingo de Bravo, a small town a couple of hours northeast of Mexico City. After many years of cooking everything from French to Italian, Romero finally realized that he had to examine his own culinary roots.
That exploration eventually led him to Nixta, his wildly popular taqueria and tortilleria. It’s named after the ancient culinary technique of nixtamalization, which unlocks the nutritional value, alluring aromas and flavors of Native heirloom corn varietals, and applies them to fine handmade tortillas.
At K’óoben’s pop-up dinners, you’ll find not only this, but other traditional or highly regional dishes like chilorio (a pork dish from the state of Sinaloa fried in chili sauce and lard, then cooked in more chili sauce) and tlyudas (an Oaxacan street food consisting of a large fried tortilla slathered in beans, then festooned with meat, cheese, and vegetal garnishes).
After more than 15 years away, Hidalgo had a chance to return to his native Mexico City, and he came back to Minneapolis a changed man. He went to Romero and asked his close friend what he thought about getting together for a big barbecue. Something to make him feel less homesick.
“No flyers, no nothing,” says Hidalgo. “Just the three of us cooking together.” The third friend was chef Jose Alarcon, whose two Centro locations serve Mexican standards and straightforward tacos. His more fine-dining baby, Popol Vul, was a COVID casualty focused more on pre-Colonial ingredients and dishes.
That first intimate barbecue resonated. Soon, they were a brotherhood of not just three, but many. Think of K’óoben events as a “chef’s night off,” for chefs whose passion spills out far beyond restaurants. Their idea of relaxation is to get together and cook some more — with and for old and new friends — in true Mexican spirit.
With that spirit in mind, we asked Romero and Gustavo to share a few of their favorite spots to hit around town when they’re not cooking.
Where do you like to eat on your day off?
Mike Hidalgo: On Saturdays, I always go to Nixta. I don’t need to ask for anything; Gustavo just takes care of it. And every time I get up to leave, I have no room left in my stomach.
The vibe I get from that place is family. It’s like when I go to my mom’s. She doesn't even have to ask, ‘Are you hungry?’ She knows what I’m there for, and so does Gustavo.
My favorite is the bolillo (a huge Mexican sandwich in a white roll). I don’t get it very often, because I’m trying to stay away from carbs. Otherwise, it's the birria or the pozole. The last time I went, Gustavo gave me caldo de camaron (shrimp soup) with purple potato and cabbage. If you get that with the salsa macha? It can cure a hangover in five minutes.
I also love ramen and Japanese food. Tori 44 is really well known, because they make their own noodles. They’re closed on Mondays and Tuesdays just to make noodles for their two locations. Especially in winter, I need soups and stews.
Gustavo Romero: I love the crispy tacos with consomme and birria (a variation of barbacoa cooked in adobo broth) from Taqueria y Birrieria Las Cuatro Milpas. In Guadalajara, birria is like red pozole with beef — soupy. But here, you put the meat into the taco and dunk it into the broth. We say it’s like Mexican French Dip.
I also eat a lot at my own restaurant. Leo (Romero’s 2-year-old son) and myself eat a lot of quesadillas.
If I had to point to a restaurant that I go to often, Hai Hai would be it. Chef Christina [Nguyen] does an amazing job on Vietnamese flavors — she’s not shy with spice. It’s the kind of food that hits you in the face. The drinks are great.
Also, Guayaca Bistreaux; the Latin-Caribbean food that chef Pedro [Wolcott] does is different from most of the food we have in the Twin Cities.
Both of these places can make me feel like I’m someplace else, especially in the wintertime. I need that kind of food to feel comfortable in the cold. When it comes to Mexican food, I go to the food truck on 12th and Lake Street (Que Chula es Puebla). I get the cemita; it’s a gigantic sandwich that gets me through the day. Also, the taco árabes with carne asada, wrapped in a flour tortilla with a chipotle sauce. If you’ve been to Puebla, Mexico, you eat this dish very often.
When I’m in a hurry, I call them and get my food and eat it on the way to work. And when I get to Nixta, I have chipotle sauce all over my face!
Where do you like to shop for food?
Gustavo:La Unica on Lake and Quinton [in Minneapolis]. There is a beautiful mural of corn on the building. You have to see that mural; it's one of the best in the city. La Unica is just a door — no sign — so it’s easy to just drive on by. They have all kinds of Latin products, not just Mexican. There I buy maguey leaves for barbacoa, cactus, good tomatoes (even in winter), huazontles (a unique pre-Colonial vegetable sometimes thought of as “Mexican broccoli”) purslane from Mexico, clay plates, art and good meat. It’s super clean and organized — pretty much the only place I shop for my produce.
Mike: El Burrito Mercado. They have Salvadorian products, Mexican products…. For me, it’s like Candyland! They sell all kinds of sodas, and sodas from each place are very specific. Ecuadorian sodas, Mexican, Columbian. It’s a huge place to just walk around. I walked into the sweets aisle and thought I’d get some bread and snacks for later, and I literally spent $20 just on cookies!
What is your favorite bar?
Gustavo / Mike:Meteor Bar!
Gustavo: It’s kind of like a dive bar with awesome drinks. A lot of places that make really good drinks can start to feel really stuffy. But here, I can go when I’m just off work, I can go for a business meeting or I can go for a date with my wife. Any occasion.
Mike: I have to make a stop at Meteor at least once a month. It’s really cool — not too crowded, not too ‘in.’
What do you do when you need to get out of the city?
Gustavo: Minneapolis has so many parks and places to walk and wander. There are so many in the city [with] lakes [and] hiking. I like to walk around Bde Maka Ska when it's not too cold and windy. It’s also so nice to walk along the river. Also, Como [Park] Zoo and the Minnesota Zoo are both really nice. The Conservatory is so good when it’s cold. You can go there and feel warm.
Mike: I never get out of the city, but when I have time, I go and see my friends play electronic music at Mortimer’s and First Avenue.
Where do you go when you’re homesick for Mexico?
Mike: I go and visit Gustavo. I say, ‘Let’s go for a beer. Let’s go for a taco.’
Gustavo: I go to K’óoben. We look [out] for each other. At least for me, if I’m feeling down, I start looking for these guys. It’s my coping mechanism.
Keep an eye on K’ooben’s Instagram account for upcoming dates and tickets, including a farewell dinner for chef José Alarcon.
Mecca Bos is a Twin Cities-based food writer, chef and podcaster. She focuses on BIPOC voices and uncovering hidden stories. Tacos and travel are hobbies.
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