KINGFIELD — Erin Ungerman grew up in the neighborhood. Her grandparents used to buy their milk and eggs at the Grand Dairy at 46th and Grand.
Her husband, Hector Ruiz, grew up in Morelos, Mexico, and came to the United States at age 13. He began his restaurant career as a dishwasher and advanced to cooking positions at the Rainforest Café, among other places, and then un deux trois and Prima, where he quickly worked his way up to chef.
Now life has come full circle for them both. The opening of their new Latin fusion restaurant, Café Ena, in the old Dairy building, brings them both back to their roots — Ungerman geographically and Ruiz culinarily.
And the neighborhood,
Ungerman says, has welcomed them warmly home.
“Opening weekend was like a big party,” she says. “I would say [almost everyone came from within] a six-block radius. Everybody knew each other. At least two or three times a night tables come in and they know another table and 90 percent of the time it’s because they live in the neighborhood.”
While the menu and setting are a little dressier — let’s not say “formal” — than their first venture, El Meson, Café Ena is still a family restaurant, from the ownership right down to the crayon on the wall.
That’s right. That’s the handiwork of Hector and Ruiz’s daughter and the restaurant’s 2-and-a-half-year-old namesake, Ena. “She walks around the restaurant like she owns the place,” Ungerman says. “You can totally tell when she’s there. She’ll just go right up to tables and say, ‘Hi.’”
Ruiz adds, “Kids are more than welcome to come. I have my kids here during lunch. I like to have kids around. Some restaurants don’t like it, but I do.”
Kids and adults will find a menu that stretches from Mexico to Argentina, from cool summer classics like ceviche to the hearty Venezuelan pot roast-like stew pobellon criollo ($11.95). It looks like familiar Minnesota meat and potatoes, but with cilantro, onions, and tomatoes, it tastes like so much more.
Ruiz has reprised both beloved ceviche recipes from El Meson, combining a soup-like South American ceviche with a dry Mexican version with crab and shrimp in one ceviche duo ($10.95).
Lunchtime sandwiches are big, sloppy, filling affairs, stuffed with jerk chicken breast, breaded beef, steak, ham or turkey ($7.95).
After just a few months in business, Ruiz says he’s already ready to tinker with the menu. In August, look for more fish choices, in addition to those he already serves: halibut with mashed yucca, grilled swordfish, coriander-crusted ahi tuna and corvina (also known as a white sea bass), all $17.95–$18.95.
Chances are, the neighborhood will welcome those newcomers, too.