The Pop-Up Bringing Sonoran Flavor to The Twin Cities

Notes from a night at El Norte Kitchen.

October 19, 2018 ‚óŹ 3 min read

By Joshua Page | Photograph courtesy of Derrick Koch

Every burrito Ben Allen rolls starts with the nearly translucent flour tortillas he special orders from Tucson, Arizona. Tortillas around the Twin Cities, where he and his Sonoran pop-up concept El Norte Kitchen are based, just can’t compete. They’re bready, not buttery; where they should flake, they only crumble.

On a recent evening, the dining room of Cook St. Paul, El Norte’s home for the night, teeters on the edge of chaos. Patrons spill out onto the sidewalk, milling about in the cool air. In the kitchen, Allen briefly heats a prized Arizona tortilla on a griddle—just enough, he says, to give it “a little flex”—and nestles stewed pinto beans, his signature carne asada, and finely-chopped cabbage neatly together toward the bottom edge. One roll and they disappear; one more, and they’re sealed tight. Then the most critical step: a short stint on the flat top to warm all the components and crisp the edges.

After Ben and his brother Elijah—big, friendly dudes both—were affectionately nicknamed the “Brother Bears” while cooking together at a local restaurant, Elijah likes to point out that Ben’s signature move became the “bear pat:” his affectionate salute to each freshly rolled burrito before it hits the grill.

There’d been buzz leading up to tonight, but they didn’t expect the size of the crowd currently giving their names to Tricia Barthel, Allen’s business partner and fiancée who compiles a waitlist at the door. An hour into service, he’s almost out of steak. Some diners walk off disappointed, but others stay to chat with Eddie Wu, né Hansen, the loquacious ex-Marine and owner of Cook St. Paul, an American style diner with a Korean bent. He jokes with the crowd that he has twenty pounds of Korean-style short ribs Ben can use if it comes to that.

In the kitchen, Ben’s taking in large, deep breaths of air. The meat shortage has thrown him, and he’s having trouble communicating with the servers he’s hired for the night. “Ticket by ticket,” he mutters to himself. Beside him, Elijah and Albert, a local cook who often helps out with the pop-ups, are heads-down in their own tasks.

Ben’s devotion to Sonoran food stems from his move from Minnesota to Tucson at 19. He had planned on going to school but ended up cooking across several kitchens instead—falling in love with the region’s style of Mexican food in the process. Each ingredient stood out to him in stark relief: the tortilla, the wood-grilled meats laced with smoke and char, the humble beans. Even the famous Sonoran hot dog seemed to him, at first blush, a gimmick, but it didn’t take him long to understand how a frank wrapped in bacon and topped with beans, jalapeño salsa, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, and mustard could be a well-balanced, eclectic ode to place and time.  

The ephemera of these years catalyzed into dreams of owning his own asadero, a Sonoran-style taquería. As he rose to executive chef at W.A. Frost, a Twin Cities institution, Ben and Tricia began planning El Norte Kitchen. There, with the cooking experience and wisdom he’d gleaned, he’d finally serve his homage to the food that forever changed him. 

Amid the chaos, the trio soon finds its rhythm. Albert dunks potatoes in the fryer until they’re golden and sizzling, Elijah griddles small pieces of asada, and Ben brings it all together: scooping a cauliflower mixture into vegetarian tacos, topping fries with meat and crema, browning quesadillas, plating churros, and patting those signature burritos.

On a side table, six bottles of house salsa float in an ice bath. One, “salsa borracha,” is a recent concoction of pasilla chilies, beer, and orange juice inspired by Margarita Carrillo Arronte’s definitive classic, Mexico: The Cookbook. The drunken sauce is a hit. Like the rest of Ben’s food, it’s refreshingly simple—just a few high-quality ingredients in sometimes surprising combinations. Around the room, diners declare their love for the burritos, those sleek, thoughtful departures from the leaden “kitchen sink” variety more common in the upper Midwest.

When Ben emerges from the tiny, tense kitchen, his shoulders visibly ease down from his ears. As applause spreads through the dining room, his relief melts further into joy—a feeling that will last a good week or two. Pop-ups are unpredictable, he says later; an even pay-out of risk and reward. They’re paving stones, ones that Ben and Tricia hope lead straight to their own asadero.

For now, it’s ticket by ticket, bear pat by bear pat.