Queen of Cuisine: South of the border always welcome up north

f8bbd01d7a9347529fde9ba1f1cb7e89BY CARLA WALDEMAR

Nico’s Taco & Tequila Bar
2516 Hennepin Avenue

Can Nico Taco? Si.
Tasting is believing. But I had to wonder: What’s the founding  family of Amore Victoria—the longtime Lake Street pasta palace—doing in a taqueria? Going back to their roots, turns out. The clan’s from Mexico and eager to honor their abuela’s roots. Then, another question arose: With East Lake Street’s storefront cafes and food trucks already showcasing a moveable feast of Cocina Mexicana, is there room for yet another?
The wait for a table at Nico’s answered that one, too. Nico’s Taco & Tequila Bar occupies the cozy duplex formerly known as Duplex, then Birdhouse, filling its two floors with tile-topped tables, plus additional prime seating (in decent weather) on the double-decker porches fronting the  simple, contempo space.
The digs’ two bars serve as repository for what appears to be most of the tequila entering Minnesota: blancos and reposados (20 each), a dozen more anejos, plus an enterprising list of home-crafted margaritas, served in a lemonade tumbler and just as refreshing. I sipped the Granada, sweetened with blood orange, pomegranate and house-made sweet & sour, while a companion slurped the more sustaining lime-triple sec concoction, with its clean breeze of muddled cucumbers.
Perfect with the kitchen’s pair of guacamoles ($8 single, $12 double).  Creamy avocado carried the flag of the tradicional version (as it should, this purist advocates), mined with the usual suspects and brought to life with balancing hints of lime and jalapeno. The Tocino treatment also includes bacon, chipotle, cilantro and corn. If you’re a believer that bacon enhances anything you can set on a table (and if not, turn in your state ID), this one’s for you.
Nico’s retinue of half a dozen salsas showcases diversity and verve ($3 each or three for $7), bouncing from a rich, roasty, full-flavored chile de arbol with enough kick to send you back to slurping  your margarita, to the spicier verde—slightly sharp; slightly, nicely, sour with tomatillos and cilantro—and a mellower roasted tomatillo version, brightened with jalapenos and roasted garlic (also a slightly hotter serrano number). A bottomless basket of chips accompanies both apps.
But we came for the tacos (meat/veggie $3.50, seafood $4.50), dainty as a miniature painting upon their palettes of tortillas, gossamer as Kleenex. Onion, cilantro and choice of salsa accompany the ten topping options.
In the mood for pork? You’re lucky. Choose between puerco in salsa verde, simmered with potatoes; pastor, with chile de arbol and pineapple; or, our selection, carnitas—long-braised pork, nicely, sweetly spiced and piled in melt-away strands smoky with juniper berries and a splash of deep-flavored red salsa.
Loved the barbacoa just as much. Its tender bits of beef come braised with guajillos, cinnamon, and other rich spices that contribute a deep, full flavor. Then a seafood number, camaron: a couple of (a bit over-cooked) shrimp sautéed with garlic, chile de arbol, black pepper and a squirt of lime to bring those feisty flavors to attention. Lovely. Next time: the lengua (tongue). Oh, and the nopales (cactus), abetted by pinto beans, white cheese and chile de arbol.
There’s life beyond tacos, too: tostadas, the classic pork-and-hominy soup-stew posole, enchilatas, flautas, and the list goes on. So does the warm and friendly service.

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