Salsa a la Salsa

Salsa a la Salsa is an artist’s creation, as much a reflection of tradition as it is an expression of individuality. On its face an affordable and comfortable Mexican restaurant, Salsa subtly bends the rules.

The menu doesn’t give it away. Listed are tacos, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas — anything one would expect from a good Don Pablo’s — plus several traditional Mexican plates.

But restaurant founder Lorenzo Azria is an artist. He sculpts. He paints. He writes. He likes to bend the norms.

So Salsa uses copious amounts of white wine. Banana leaves replace cornhusks. An out-of-the-ordinary chutney is paired with a traditional pineapple tamale.

Azria credits the twists to his lengthy experience in non-Mexican kitchens. He’s been cooking all of his life — starting with traditional Mexican while growing up in a village just south of Mexico City — and grew many of his skills.

He bounced from kitchen to kitchen, eventually landing at a catering company that became successful just as Azria was perfecting his abilities.

It might never have come to an end had it not been for Tacos Morelos, the former Eat Street staple.

Morelos’ owner, one of Azria’s in-laws, was planning on opening a new restaurant in Shakopee. He asked Azria to come out and help; Azria had no interest in moving to a colder climate. But a visit to the Northland changed his and his family’s mind.

They arrived in Minnesota in 1998. Salsa arrived on Nicollet Avenue in 2002.

The restaurant was a near-instant hit. It’s stayed busy ever since, almost eight years later. A second of Azria’s restaurants,
A La Salsa, opened in the Midtown Global Market.

Azria is humble about his success. He’d rather divert credit to the nonprofit Latino Economic Development Center, which helped him with such tasks as developing business plans and marketing. And his family gets a nod, too — today, his daughter and son-in-law co-manage Salsa a la Salsa.

That’s left him with a bit more time to paint.

Salsa a la Salsa basics
Opened: 2002
Cuisine: Traditional Mexican, with a twist
Prices: $2–$13
Hours: 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Monday–Thursday, Sunday; 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Friday–Saturday
Address: 1420 Nicollet Ave. S.
Phone: 813-1970
Web: salsaalasalsa.com

Flavor

Lorenzo Azria doesn’t describe cactus as a prickly plant stuck in a dessert. To him, it’s the flavor that reminds him of his childhood. No surprise then that his favorite item on the Salsa a la Salsa menu is pollo con nopalitos — chicken with cactus leaves.

Nopales are a staple of traditional Mexican cuisine. The flavor of the prickly pear cactus’ leaves is subtle; many dishes incorporate them for texture and color.
In pollo con nopalitos, nopales are prepared into a green sauce that Azria loves.

Yet that same sauce is actually the least traditional aspect of the dish, incorporating ingredients Azria learned to appreciate while cooking in Italian and French kitchens. The kick of white wine is especially prevalent.

But it’s the nopales that are most important here.

“I love cactus flavors,” he said. “I grew up with that.”

What does Eat Street mean to you?

Eat Street means a big variety of food, Lorenzo Azria said, but beyond that, the structure of it has been underwhelming. “The concept is great, but I’m not very happy with the results,” he said.