Costa Blanca Bistro
2416 Central Avenue NE
Well, it’s finally here. And worth the wait. Here’s what I wrote for this newspaper back in 2015 about wunderchef Hector Ruiz and his Latin-flavored dining empire: “They call it Rincon 38. I call it tapas heaven. It’s one of the Divine Trinity of cafes saluting Spanish small plates showcasing the genius of chef/owner Hector Ruiz and his home team, on a winning streak in the tapas playoffs. (Its neighbors on Grand Avenue include Hector’s Café Ena at 4600 and La Fresca at 4750 … .)”
Since then Ruiz conceived another offspring, a lovechild born this summer, and not—for once—on that familiar stretch of real estate in South Minneapolis. No. This time, Hector has ventured to introduce his sunny style of Spanish-influenced cooking to Nordeast—landing on a site on Central Avenue that’s become the Eat Street of that sector of our city. He calls it Costa Blanca Bistro, an homage to that southeastern stretch of Spain. Hector salutes its tapas culture, accented by his own Latin heritage (His mother ran a small café in Morelos, Mexico) and French precision, honed in a Parisian kitchen bearing a Michelin star.
In keeping with his Nordeast neighbors, the digs aren’t fancy—a comfy but bland setting—but what comes out of that tiny kitchen certainly is: close to 30 tapas ($8-14) that go far beyond the traditional template of Spanish taperias, where deli-style portions typically fill a saucer. Not here, in Minnesota, where portion control simply means “size it for Thanksgiving dinner.” Each plate is easy to share among 2-4 tablemates. We two came with a list of eight food choices, but stumbled away with a doggie bag after No. 5.
We started with the least complicated, the Plato Iberico—a platter of charcuterie to slap onto toasted baguette—paper-thin, sweet, sweet Serrano ham, circles of chorizo, soria sausage and salchichon—alongside ample fingers of nutty Manchego cheese, Basque olives, a hint of truffle oil and drizzle of balsamic. Pair it with one of the wines from Spain and environs, available by taste, glass or bottle.
Then on to patatas bravas, the first thing I summon in a taperia when I land in Madrid. Rarely do they equal those in Spain, but these do, and go beyond: nuggets of confit potatoes piqued by dual aiolis (here, both saffron and citrus-infused). Peasant fare—but not in Hector’s hands. He’s added spicy bites of chorizo, sweet pimiento peppers and artichokes. Divine.
Next up, mero: an ivory square of sea bass set upon sautéed leeks and spinach along with—here he goes again—fluffy truffled polenta, all bordered with a rich saffron butter sauce. We paired it with a plate of pimiento-fried cauliflower baubled with fried green olives and joined by citrus peppers, roasted artichokes and again those dual aiolis—good, but strong and salty. A little goes a long way.
Slumping over my list of other must-haves—scallops; roasted mushrooms; squid ink pasta; goat cheese croquettes; octopus; lamb chops—oh, you get the idea—we caved. We settled on a dish of paella marinara—saffron bomba rice (more liquid, less crusty than the usual Spanish paella, but tasty) hosting everything from the ocean: tender mussels, sweet shrimp, gentle scallops and rings of calamari—joined by sweet peppers and a valued squirt of lemon. A fitting finale.
Oh, wait! Look what’s for dessert! Churros! Three banana-size doughnut straight from the fryer, plus a dab of whipped cream (his unique addition) and the essential wicked-rich, deep, dark hot chocolate dip that’s fueled Spaniards for centuries. It’s their close to an evening at 4 A.M. And my daily breakfast. Bravo, indeed.