What, I had to wonder, is the founding family of Amore Victoria — the Uptown pasta palace — doing opening a taqueria? Going back to their roots, turns out. They’re from Mexico and eager to honor their abuela’s recipes. Then, another question arose: With East Lake Street’s storefronts a veritable buffet of Cucina Mexicana, is there room within the zip code for another?
The wait for a table at Nico’s answered that one, too. Nico’s Taco & Tequila Bar occupies the duplex formerly known as Duplex, then Birdhouse, filling two floors with tile-topped tables, plus additional prime seating on the double-decker porches fronting the unfussy, ungussied, contempo space.
The digs’ two bars serve as repository for what appears to be most of the tequila entering Minnesota: blancos and reposados (20 each), a dozen more anejos, and a quartet of complicated margaritas ($6-8), served in a lemonade tumbler and just as refreshing. I sipped the Granada, sweetened with blood orange, pomegranate and house-made sweet & sour, while a companion slurped the more sustaining lime-triple sec concoction, with its clean breeze of muddled cucumbers.
Perfect with the kitchen’s pair of guacamoles. Avocado carried the flag of the traditional version (as it should, this purist advocates), pocked with the usual suspects and brought to life with balancing hints of lime and jalapeno. The Tocino treatment also includes bacon, chipotle, cilantro and corn. If you’re a believer that bacon enhances anything you can set on a table (and if not, turn in your state ID), this one’s for you.
Nico’s retinue of salsas showcases diversity and verve ($3 or three for $7), bouncing from a rich, roasty, full-flavored chile de arbol with enough kick to send you back to your margarita, to the verde — slightly sharp, slightly, nicely, sour with tomatillos and cilantro — and a roasted tomatillo version brightened with pickled chipotle and roasted garlic (also a hotter serrano number, untasted). Homemade tortilla chips accompany both apps.
But we came for the tacos (meat/veggie $3, seafood $4), dainty as a miniature painting upon their palettes of La Perla tortillas, gossamer as Kleenex. Onion, cilantro and choice of red or green salsa accompany the ten topping options.
In the mood for pork? You’re lucky. Choose between puerco in salsa verde with potatoes; pastor, with chile ancho and pineapple; or, our selection, carnitas—braised pork, nicely spiced and piled in meltaway strands smoky with juniper berries and a splash of deep-flavored red salsa.
Loved the barbacoa just as much. Its tender bits of beef come braised with guajillos, cinnamon and other rich spices that contribute a deep, full flavor. Then a seafood number, camaron: a couple of (pre-cooked, I’ll bet, and a bit over-cooked) shrimp sautéed with garlic, chile de arbol, black pepper and a squirt of lime to bring those feisty flavors to attention. Lovely. Next time: the lengue (tongue) and the nopales (cactus ), abetted by pinto beans and queso cotija.
Dessert, we asked? Soon, as soon as the tiny kitchen feels comfortable and can comply. Watch for flan and tres leches cake.
Nico’s Taco and Tequila Bar
2516 Hennepin Ave. S.