Casually elegant

Colita dish

I recently ate my way through Puerto Vallarta, from fancy restaurants where they snatched my purse off the floor and reverently placed it on a bespoke stool to sitting on a curb slurping $1 tacos at a pop-up stand.

Yearning for more of those vibrant flavors, the night after my return I snagged a rez at Colita.

Hair of the dog? Well, not exactly: no charred eggplant tostadas nor cordero tartare south of the border. They’re a couple of don’t-miss culinary fantasies found instead in Southwest Minneapolis, where chef Daniel del Prado took over a gas station on Penn Avenue to create a casually elegant setting similar to the clean design he favors at his original venture, Martina.

Softly lit walls are spared of busywork, broken simply by niches of greenery and a living wall of plants behind the busy bar. All around us, the simple wooden two- and four-tops were crammed with intent diners exploring dishes to share.

Colita dish

The small-plates menu salutes the regional cuisine of Oaxaca, known for its finesse with food. I once took a cooking class there in which I was required to prepare a mole sauce from a 23-ingredient recipe.

Here at Colita, my hardest task is perusing the 23-item menu and trying — trying! — to eliminate a dish or two from my wish list. Our server counseled (wisely, it turns out) that four small plates between the two of us would be ample.

The list segues from snacks like chips and guac for $5 to a bone-in smoked short rib at $50. Most items, sized for sharing, fall in the $15 range. And no, you don’t have to pass the fried-cricket test to eat here. Familiar items include a tostadas of three cheeses brightened with black pepper; baked oysters with bacon, crema and Parmesan; and a salad of squash, spinach, chevre and hazelnut mole.

There’s even a Kansas City-style pork rib, for heaven’s sake.

Colita dish

But trust me (or your server) and explore some of the more original fare on offer.

We started with that charred eggplant tostada, served at room temp. It was loaded with meaty chunks of that satin-textured veggie along with roasted tomatoes, a nutty hint of sesame, a spritz of lime for brightness and a scatter of creamy burrata cheese to assure we’ve touched all the sensory bases. The tortillas on which they’re built are made from organic Oaxacan corn, hand-ground and grilled to order. The result is a pleasing marriage of tastes and textures.

Same goes for the chicken liver memelita. The rich, buttery liver mousse called “eat me” from the confines of its edible bowl of crisp-fried cornmeal. To underline that siren song, it was dressed with sweet-sharp pickled plums, deep-flavored blackberries, minty shiso, a trace of hibiscus blossoms and that one-size-fits-all Mexican condiment, Tajin (chipotle, salt and lime). Your bubbe’s chopped liver it’s not.

Not everything’s perfect. Encouraged by our server, we next ordered the chochoyotes mole Amarillo. The Oaxacan dish of (as we learned) corn dough bore an uber-grainy texture and (to me, anyway) an off-putting flavor signaling that, despite the efforts of serranos, mint and a scattering of ricotta salata, one bite was enough.

A taste of the lamb barbacoa tacos and I was smiling again. The kitchen paired these meaty, richly sauced and smoked ribbons with a counter-intuitive cast of anchovies and capers as well as top-of-mind representatives like onions and cilantro. They play well together.

Colita dish

Dessert? Just say si.

I love-love-love those wicked little fried strings of dough called churros. This kitchen’s version twirled those lengths into a circle, then added a creamy dipper instead of the customary chocolate. Fine, but not fantastic. Save that descriptive for the truffle that appears to sweeten your bill, composed of chocolate, chile and coconut flakes.

Colita’s cocktail guru has fashioned several complicated (in a good way) tipples from white liquors. I chose his version of an Old Fashioned that called upon mezcal, fermented amari and cocoa nib. This is not your girlie drink but rather slow-sipping magic.

Or peruse the lists of wine, beer and equally clever alcohol-free creations. And trust your servers: They’re polished and accommodating.

So, what’s not to like? Only the slim odds of a reservation anytime soon.

5400 Penn Avenue