Corn Palace

Hola Arepa co-owner Birk Gruden demonstrates restaurant windows that pay homage to the original food truck. Credit: File photo

Hola Arepa
3501 Nicollet Ave. S.

South Dakota’s iconic Corn Palace is a huge (literally) tourist draw. Well, give it up, Mitchell: Now we’ve got a corn palace of our own. It’s Hola Arepa, the food truck-turned-sit-down on South Nicollet celebrating corn, as in corn cakes. And on a recent sunny Sunday, the lines were as long as at the cob structure of our western neighbor.

Clearly there’s a reason. Lots of them, actually, starting with a casual-chic redesign of a former Mexican cantina, whose interior is swathed in dappled white stucco with accents of swimming-pool blue, antiqued wooden table tops, and, spared of tchotchkes, simply an ample mirror, which reflects the kitchen line, set off with a wall of windows reflecting the patio. Add in swell service, inventive craft cocktails, free parking, and dine-here-daily prices.

Plus the corn.

It’s the building block behind the tortillas, served with choice of four salsas, from kid-friendly sweet and mild to macho-testing bold. Small plates include fried, stuffed balls of cornmeal; loaded tostadas; side salads; and a corn pancake known as cachapas. More on that wonder in a minute. The arepas themselves ($11–$12) are accompanied by yucca fries that converted this anti-fry eater into a acolyte. They’re thick as cigars, nicely mealy, virtually untouched by grease, and accompanied by your choice of dips: an herb-bright chimichurri or creamy aioli verde, packing a nice, little nip of heat.

We started with the shiitake cachapas — a slender, sweet corn pancake loaded with earthy shiitake mushrooms, equally come-hither huitlacoche (a corn fungus that tastes much better than it sounds), creamy, slightly acid goat cheese to set them off, and a perfectly ready-to-run poached egg — all resting on micro greens and spritzed with enough truffle oil to draw folks in off the street.

Next, a pair of those signature arepas — the rebar of this particular corn palace. The arepa cakes resemble English muffins, rich with texture, split to hold a generous filling. The slow-roasted pork version came loaded with juicy, pungent pulled meat, accented by black beans, mild, white cotija cheese and a drizzle of that vaguely sweet, faintly tangy hola sauce. The more complex adobo chicken number saluted tender chunks of white meat set off again with black beans, more cotija, a wake-up crunch of gently pickled cabbage, and rounds of plum tomatoes, all pulled together with a splash of chipotle aioli. Or choose a pork/ham/Swiss cheese Cuban version; beef with plantain; pork with sweet potato, etc.

Often in a Latin kitchen, the desserts are very, very sweet and forgettable. Here, skip them at your own peril. A genius in the kitchen has created a winning quartet ($5–$6) including a rhubarb pavlova (how long since you’ve seen that classic on a menu?). Its meringue cocoon holds a cache of sweet-tart rhubarb, upon a base of “silken pudding,” which amounts to the tasteless cornstarch blanc mange of grandma’s day; the creation wins extra points for a burst of poppy seeds, honey and fresh thyme in the fruity compote. There’s also a flourless chocolate cake with mango-tequila sauce and more; a pineapple-topped tartlet filled with caramelized chess pie; and our final choice, an ice cream sandwich.

Yeah, you’re saying, bor-ing. Not! The corn cookie sandwiching the vanilla contains — get this! — corn meal, corn pops, fritos and butterscotch — like eating a chocolate chip cookie, only better. So hola: Welcome to the neighborhood, arepa-makers. You’ve improved the real estate.