It wasn’t my first trip to El Meson, although quite some time had passed since I last dined there. Looking back on the experience, I can’t explain why I have been absent. The location is convenient; the food and service always are memorable; the prices are more than fair; and the Spanish and Caribbean flavors are a welcome departure from the Italian/French/Asian culinary hub. My inability to provide some rational excuse for my unintentional disregard of the place almost has me trying to find fault with El Meson, much like a lover who secretly is nursing a fear of commitment.
Soon after restauranteur Erin Ungerman starts us off with a glass of Rosado Brut ($7/$24)—a Spanish dry sparkling red wine that simultaneously exudes both innocence and a playful wit—I realize the only fault has been mine. On behalf of such inattentive lovers the world over, let me offer my humble apology.
Fortunately, El Meson tempers such introspection with an excellent wine selection, including a velvety smooth Montecillo Rioja ($37). Most bottles of wine are half-price Sunday through Thursday, with a minimum food purchase of $25. Incredible deals also can be found on the happy hour menu, 4-6 PM, where tapas ranges from just $3 to $5.
And the tapas—oh, the tapas! El Meson’s small plates seem to offer a little something more in terms of depth and complexity than one may find elsewhere. Cantapalitos ($7.95) offers a smoky, tangy kick, thanks to sherry vinaigrette, grilled chorizo, sautéed artichoke hearts, and sweet onions. For some reason, the only taste descriptor sticking as I write this, a day later, is that it mimics a kind of sausage slaw.
Gambas al Ajillo ($8.95), also from the tapas menu, provides a very approachable introduction to El Meson’s clear specialty, which is fresh seafood. Shrimp, sautéed with white wine, garlic, and parsley, are plated so nicely that they are almost too pretty to eat.
From the entradas list, we were treated to Croquetas ($8.95)—two pleasantly portly crab cakes with roasted red pepper sauce, garnished with apple and fennel. Jerk seasoning gives the cakes an unexpected twist and a bit of heat.
Next, Ceviche ($10.95), which was absolutely incredible, and one of the favorite tastes of the evening. Bursting with lime, and rich with the juices of blanched shrimp, scallops, calamari, and halibut, it can be scooped up on a few fried slices of accompanying plantain, but really requires no other conduit but a spoon. If your table is limited either by budget or appetite, Ceviche is definitely worth the investment. It is enlivened further by a good crisp white wine, and Ungerman’s recommendation of Verdemar Albarino ($37) is spot-on—clean, light, and accommodating of the heavy citrus.
For our entrées, Ungerman made two very bold choices: Conchas, pan-seared scallops ($17.95); and Ternero, oven-roasted beef tenderloin ($17.95).
Scallops are sensitive creatures—they spoil quickly, and are overcooked in the flashiest of flashes. If I were to indulge myself in the form of fairy tale anthropomorphism, a scallop is very like the princess who couldn’t tolerate so much as a pea. But El Meson knows how to treat such a delicate maid with love (in the form of saffron butter sauce), so that her tenderness and sweetness can emerge.
Ungerman’s second entrée selection was also unexpected, following the wealth of seafood dishes. However, I’m forever grateful for the beef tenderloin. Paired with the previously noted Rioja, it has me wondering what the rest of El Meson has to offer. With a menu so extensive and varied, it is the perfect place to take a group of friends who aren’t finicky about sharing bites.
At this point in the evening, the staff at El Meson had gained my trust fully, so I dug into Coconut Flan ($6) without hesitation. Though not by nature a flan-fan, the texture won me over in an instant—a sweet, creamy fantasy of coconut and caramel. Key Lime Pie ($6) is served with mango coulis, which, despite all reasoning, actually seems to bring out the perky lime, rather than dominating it.
If, like me, you have found yourself ignoring such a culinary sweetheart, perhaps it’s time you were reacquainted. El Meson is suffering the ill effects of a prolonged construction project along that stretch of Lyndale Avenue, but parking seems to be plentiful on nearby side streets. Once inside, you’ll find it just as welcoming as ever.
3450 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls.