Love of family, love of food

Almost three years ago, the siblings opened Cocina Latina, 38th & Nicollet, to share traditional Ecuadorian and South American cuisine.  

“Our father always dreamed that one day his children would open a business together,” said Silvia Sacta. “After he passed, my brother Luis, Ruth, and I gave it much thought and decided to give it a try.”  

Although the Sactas have been in the United States for over 20 years, one only needs to look at the menu to see their heritage behind each dish. Traditional Columbian starters, Empanada de Carne, or meat turnovers, on the menu as well as the Bandera, an entreé that is a tri-color of taste — beef, goat and shrimp ceviche.   

Sacta is quick to point out that Chaulafan, a Latin-style fried rice, is nothing like the typical fried rice. “The seasonings are different and penetrate the rice. Preparation over heat is required to bring out the full flavors and aroma.”  

Regulars also know to ask for “aji,” a traditional Ecuadorian spicy sauce. Like a salsa, aji is made using a fruit native to the Andes region of Latin America, the tamarillo.  

“We are a family-oriented restaurant. When customers come in with small children, I tell them not to worry if there is a mess. I have a broom in the back. You just enjoy your meal with the family,” says Sacta with gentle sincerity.

This genuine love of the business and her customers is no doubt is highly influenced by her mother, Clementina Sacta. “Everybody loves my mother — she’s quick to tell you she has five children and 15 grandchildren.”  

Having met Clementina, one can see how her warmth and hospitality has become central to Cocina Latina. Their website states simply, “We can’t wait to make you a part of our family.”   

I think their father would be proud.

Erin Ungerman, a lifelong resident of Southwest Minneapolis, decided in high school that she wanted to be in the restaurant industry. After graduation, while classmates took a traditional path, Ungerman backpacked across Southeast Asia, India to experience new places, people and food. Ungerman took her first restaurant job at Prima, 53rd & Lyndale, running the front of the house. This set into motion a series of events that would change her personally and professionally.  

Hector Ruiz was born in the United States but lived in Mexico where his passion for food began by watching his mother run a small restaurant out of their home for extra money. 

A move to Chicago at age 15 launched his culinary experience. From there, Ruiz was sent to Minneapolis to open Tucci Benucci when he was 17. He continued his classic education at the Le Cordon Bleu and apprenticed in Paris at a Michelin three-star restaurant. Returning to Minneapolis, he secured his position as executive chef at Prima.

It was at Prima, that Ungerman and Ruiz’ personal and business relationship began with her wooed by “big plates of chicken tinga tostadas” prepared by him.  

In June 2003, they took over El Meson, creating a restaurant with a vibrant and welcoming atmosphere. The menu at El Meson takes inspiration from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Pescado Caribe Pan, seared filet of grouper encrusted in Jamaican seasonings, served over a mofongo of yucca with Chicharon (smoked bacon) and topped with mango salsa, is just one of the many unique entrees.  

Ungerman and Ruiz opened Café Ena in 2007 which has become the showcase for Ruiz’s talents. Named after their daughter, Ena is Celtic for “little fire,” a nod to Ungerman’s Irish heritage. El Meson and Café Ena are brick and mortar reflections of the complementary entrepreneurial and culinary talents of Ruiz and the strong business acumen of Ungerman.

Matt Perry is the president of the 

Nicollet-East Harriet Business Association. For more information on southwest businesses, visit experiencesouthwest.com.