I could listen to Kristen Martinez talk about taquitos all day.
Martinez, an El Paso native and Tex-Mex fanatic, is reminiscing about Chico’s Tacos—a tiny but iconic El Paso restaurant chain that’s been around since the 1950s. Specifically, she’s talking about those taquitos.
“Inside of them is beef and potato, and they fry them,” Martinez explains. “They cover it with cheese, melt the cheese, and then they pour this really basic, really runny red sauce on top. And they come in, like, a boat. It’s amazing, and it’s also, for lack of a better term, kind of filthy? Like, in a good way. I mean in a really gross, awesome way.”
It’s a kind of thing you can only get in El Paso… or at MB FoodHouse, where Martinez and co. make an homage to that beef-and-potato taquito topped with a roasted poblano garlic crema and a dash of queso fresco.
It looks like this:
I mean, come on, right?
The taquitos have already been a popular item for MB FoodHouse, which got its start popping up at Five Watt Coffee on Lyndale Avenue earlier this year. Next week, the Tex-Mex restaurant will debut in the North Loop Galley food hall with a fully realized kitchen that’ll let them make their taquitos even better, flash-frying rather than baking them to get an extra crispy shell. “Those little changes make a huge difference,” Martinez says.
Growing up in Texas, Martinez learned to love Tex-Mex in all its messy glory from her grandmom and her mom.
“El Paso, Texas—it has a very specific flavor that’s very unique to El Paso,” she says. “People think Tex-Mex is—and it is—this Americanized version of Mexican food. But near the border states, it’s more practical Mexican food with a little bit of the American influence.”
By way of example, she mentions the weenie and egg breakfast taco you can find at MB FoodHouse, which is “totally normal there, but here it’s the weirdest thing in the world.” She opened the restaurant to try and bring some of that flavor to the Twin Cities, where yes, you can find some great Mexican food—but no Tex-Mex quite like this.
Elsewhere on the MB FoodHouse menu there’s the macha chicken taco, with char-grilled chicken tossed in a salsa macha BBQ sauce mix on a corn tortilla, topped with fried cilantro, jalapeño, garlic, scallion, and peanut mix. It’s hometown food, with ever-so-slight elevations.
On the other end of the spectrum, MB FoodHouse takes its vegan offerings pretty seriously. That salsa macha makes a mean vinaigrette, with soy sauce, honey, and vinegar. It’s tossed with cauliflower and added to a mix of fried brussel sprouts, Japanese peanuts, and scallions, and the whole taco gets topped with more vinaigrette.
And any of those ingredients can be added to a bowl rather than a taco, making for a hearty meal on a base of rice and beans (which are also made vegan—no lard in these beans). There will be taco fries loaded with carnitas and queso, and eventually MB FoodHouse will have chicken wings, rib tips, and other specials—including a Mexican-style burger and tortas.
You might already know Martinez as the front person of the noisy new-era hip-hop group Moodie Black; they just did a few dates with Sleigh Bells. Or maybe you know her from social media, or from her podcast, Moodhouse, where as a trans woman of color, Martinez is a vocal advocate for trans rights and an open book about what it’s like to be a trans person in the music industry.
“That’s also why I wanted to have a Tex-Mex spot,” she says. “If you go in, as a trans woman, to a Mexican place, it can be awkward. Same thing with a barbecue joint. There’s just a lot of places where I don’t go or avoid because I feel threatened, or awkward.” Kitchen culture has gotten better over the years, but there’s just not enough representation out there. And still, every day, she’s misgendered.
MB FoodHouse is a source of visibility, to help people understand that this is how it is: Trans people are people, trans women are women. “I get a lot of messages about music and about cooking now, and people feel inspired or comforted knowing that we’re out there existing and making things happen,” Martinez says.
Overall, she’s happy to be that source of visibility. Really, she’s just happy to be here, cooking the food she loves for a new community here in the Twin Cities.
“To me, every day that we’re open is a massive success, because restaurants are finite. You see so many restaurants come and go, and we’re just going to enjoy taking this as far as we can.”