Picosa offers the spice of life

Picosa owners Lindell and Jennifer Mendoza in their riverfront restaurant.

Photo by Jeremy Stratton

Saturday, April 12 fashion show will benefit South Minneapolis kids

Fashioning a Dream

On Saturday, April 12, 3–5 p.m., local businesses, performers, and city officials will take part in a fashion show and fundraiser to benefit students at Green Central Park Elementary School, 3416 Fourth Ave. S., who will take a field trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota.

East Bank retailers Key North and gh2 will provide the apparel for the fashion show, and Décor-Ation and Level Salon, both in Downtown East, will provide jewelry, hairstyling and makeup, respectively.

Models will include Ward 3 City Council Member Diane Hofstede and her Ward 8 colleague Elizabeth Glidden. Patrick Scully, of Patrick’s Cabaret fame, will emcee.

Appetizers, coffee and tea will be served. Tickets are $50–$150 per person and can be purchased at Key North, 515 First Ave. N., or Level Salon, 903 Washington Ave. S.

Teacher Ceola Lazo took 40 5th-grade students — many of whom come from low-income households — on the inaugural trip last year. “Most had never been out of the city, had never been to see things or go on a vacation,” wrote Lazo in a narrative about the experience.

Photos from the 2007 trip are on display in the mayor’s office through April 30.

65 SE Main St.
Free wireless access and free validated parking in the Riverplace parking ramp.

Walk into Picosa on the riverfront at 65 SE Main St. at different times and on different days, and you might find a slightly different restaurant each time. You’ll be welcomed by the same décor — the dark wood, the long bar backed by mirrors and glowing bottles, the open lounge floor with high-top tables and low couches, all leading to the dining room proper, obscured by sheer floor-to-ceiling curtains.

From that base, however, Picosa can dress for a number of occasions: fine dining, happy hour, Saturday night fever, Sunday brunch, riverside summer outing — even tournament-style poker or a fashion show on April 12 — all overlooking the Mississippi River where the city was born.

Perhaps that’s a model for the Picosa menu, as well, from which owner and chef Lindell Mendoza reaches out from the base of “Nuevo Latino” to treat his customers to what they want.

Picosa — the “spicy one” — rests firmly on that original vision of “Nuevo Latino” cuisine: Mexican pan-seared shrimp, tomatillo-braised pork, Peruvian-style beef tenderloin, Nicaraguan empanadas — but Mendoza has not been afraid to expand from there, albeit with a bit of searching, sometimes, into his chef’s soul.

“After 35 years of cooking, I’ve kind of learned to take my heart off my sleeve,” said Mendoza. “Twenty years ago, I was the typical arrogant chef: ‘This is all we do, get out of here, go somewhere else.’” By now, he’s learned that some of the best recipes come from being open to outside influences — be they the evolution of cuisine in an ever-shrinking world, or the feedback of his wife, his staff and, last but not least, his customers.

Mendoza put it simply: “If a customer comes in and orders a hamburger, what do you do? You make them a hamburger. You don’t send them down the street,” he said. “I’m just not that arrogant, I guess.”

While one review said Picosa had “gotten a little bit away from our culture,” as Mendoza paraphrased, the same open attitude led to the addition of another popular menu item: the thoroughly Latin feijoada, a black bean and meat stew considered the national dish of Brazil, he said. After a couple of separate requests, he figured “it belongs on the menu then, if they’re that into it,’” Mendoza recalled. “As time went by, customers made requests, and I got very nervous about ignoring their requests. I started doing some switching.”

For example, his spicy shrimp was originally intended to be a take-off of the tamale, but customers and at least one reviewer said it had too much dough and not enough shrimp. “So we changed it,” said Mendoza. “Now it’s one of our biggest sellers.”

A tradition of fusion

Mendoza’s cooking career began at the age of 13, working in neighborhood joints in the Latino neighborhood of South Chicago where he grew up with a Mexican father and American (as in U.S., he notes) mother.

While his influence toward Latino cuisine may start with the food he grew up on, his cooking has been shaped by his studies, travel and his work, most recently at Hotel Sofitel, where he ran the restaurants before opening Picosa in the former Sophia’s space with his wife — co-owner and General Manager Jennifer Mendoza.

He described himself as a student of cooking, interested in food history. “The first fusion food started thousands of years ago when the caveman had an accident and his meat got too close to the fire,” he said. From there, food has followed a fascinating evolution, spurred recently by “the smaller world,” in which “cultures are almost forced to learn about each other, and we can, for lack of a better term, use all the best parts from those cultures,” he said.

Still, misconceptions exist about not only this fusing of cultural cuisines (one reviewer accused his Nuevo Latino of lacking tradition, a point Mendoza found ironic) but about what traditional food is. Mendoza said there’s a big difference between what the United States — and especially Minneapolis — thinks Latino cuisine is and what it really is.

A case in point: Some years ago, he was at a Chi Chi’s restaurant in Chicago with his Mexican-born father and grandmother, who spoke no English. She not only wouldn’t say the chain-restaurant’s scandalous name — slang for breasts, among other meanings — but she had to ask her son what the menu item “burrito” was. “I don’t know, mom,” replied Mendoza’s father. “It must be a baby burro.”

The tomato wasn’t Italian until Christopher Columbus brought it back from the New World, he explained. “What we call fusion now, I think in 200 years won’t be considered fusion at all.”

Cocktails, dancing and poker in the back

Even beyond the menu, part of Picosa’s charm is its versatility. A work-week happy hour (4–7 p.m. Monday–Friday; two-for-one beer, wines and rails) and all-day drink specials for $5 or less make it a great place to unwind, and the happy hour offers tacos, two for $1, with your choice of fillings. Weekday lunch ($6.95) and weekend brunch ($8.95) feature a generous array of items to choose from, and Sunday brunch has become reservations-only, thanks to high demand.

Dinner is a fine-dining affair, with entrees including seafood such as sea bass, shrimp and mahi-mahi dishes, as well as chicken, pork, and steak or vegetarian mains, all served with Sonoran fry bread.

On Saturday at 9:30 p.m., Picosa steps out as a salsa club, with lessons and dancing to a live band. DJ Fatima spins a salsa happy hour on Wednesdays starting at 5:30 p.m., and on Friday nights, Picosa goes VIP, with a $20 cover charge, bottle service and a dress code.

You can even pick up a poker game — the North Star Poker Tour makes a stop in the back room (available for other events as well, from business meetings to private parties) every Tuesday night, with Texas Hold ‘em tournaments starting at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Still growing

Business has grown, said Mendoza, but “not having a year under our belt yet,” the verdict is still out. “I can say that, in the business world today, if you’re not prepared to at least try to be all things to all people, then you’re putting yourself into a specialty niche, and you’re really taking a big risk,” he said.

It seems to be working; his schedule at the heart of the weekend, if nothing else, is evidence. “With salsa ending at 2 a.m., and brunch starting at 10 a.m., it doesn’t leave much time in there for sleep,” said Mendoza. With the spring thaw, he’s getting “nervous” about summer on the patio along Southeast Main Street; it was so popular last year, they plan to go from 58 to 80 seats this season.

Nerves or not, it sounds like a good problem to have.

last revised: April 9, 2008