Authentic Mexican Food in the Red River Valley

Cinco de Mayo is upon us, which means people are talking about where to find the best margarita. No judgement here. I totally support this quest and eagerly await the collective answer.

But while everybody else is drinking, I’ll totally be thinking about where to find the best Mexican food. Because I think about that a lot. I’m kind of obsessed. Give me freshly made tortillas, killer pico de gallo and queso fresco and I’ll be set. Ditto for tamales. Ooh, and carnitas…

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Pan dulce at La Unica in Moorhead, MN

See, I grew up in a small, agricultural community on the Minnesota side of the Red River, and a very particular version of Mexican culture and cuisine gave me my first glimpse into the world outside of my tiny town. Local farmers (my dad and grandpa included, at one time) grow sugar beets and migrant workers from Texas and Mexico would come work in the fields. (I did this for my dad one summer. It was the hardest job I’ll ever have.)

After the harvest, some families would leave and we’d only see the kids again during migrant school in the summers. But lots of them stayed and put down roots, leaving the ag industry behind and settling into different, more permanent roles in the community.

So I went to school with kids who spoke Spanish to each other. It was the first language (other than English, of course) I was exposed to. They helped me ace my Spanish classes, introduced me to Norteño and Tejano music and are largely responsible for the fact that I can still sing all of Selena’s greatest hits when verb tenses I learned much later in life elude me.

The tiny cafe in my little city switched ownership a lot, and for a time it served authentic Mexican food to all the farmers and Lutheran ladies raised on well done steak and mashed potatoes. That little place shaped my opinion of what great local dining should involve (fresh ingredients, tested recipes, a passionate cook) and raised the bar for Mexican restaurants for me. It wasn’t fancy at all, but it felt real and un-fussy.

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A burrito at El Toro in Wahpeton, ND

“Authentic” is one of those words that marketers like to throw around. Travelers and foodies like me love to use it to show how we’ve connected to the heart of a place, discovered a local spot, but it’s a slippery term that can hardly define the rowdy mix of influences that great cooking usually draws from. My criteria for an authentic Mexican joint isn’t terribly scientific, but it works for me.

First, does the restaurant serve food that a Mexican grandma would recognize?  Mexican cuisine is complex and regional and we see only a fraction of that variety in the States, but it should at least ring a bell. Second, are any of my Mexican-American neighbors eating there on a regular basis?

If the staff speaks Spanish to each other, that’s also a good sign. And if you hear the line cooks jamming out to a cumbia or reggaeton in the kitchen, that’s an excellent sign. Cooks are the heart of a restaurant and having your food prepared by somebody that actually understands the culture it comes from is a very cool bonus.

Here are a few of my favorite Mexican places in the Red River Valley. It’s not a definitive list, so be sure to tell me your favorite spots at the bottom of the post. I travel a lot, so be sure to chime in, even if your favorite spot is halfway around the world. I’ll travel for good food!

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A small (!) naked burrito and tortilla chips at Romo’s

Romo’s Mexican Deli & Catering in Fargo, ND
Rodolfo Romo started this local chain as a food truck and now serves diners at three brick and mortar restaurants in Fargo. Romo’s is known for slow-cooked beef, chicken and pork that’ll blow your mind.

The meat is served on tacos and salads, but it really shines in Romo’s absolutely gigantic burritos. They’re available in several sizes, but the smallest one can feed both my son and I, which is madness. And they come with chips and salsa. Order yours smothered with cheese, sour cream and salsa verde. There are a few purely vegetarian options available, too, like a veggie burrito (sans tortilla) shown above.

La Unica in Moorhead, MN
I think this little Mexican market and take-out restaurant is one of the best kept secrets in town. I’m guessing its location in an industrial neighborhood in Moorhead (the kind that makes you glance at your GPS and think, “Hmmmm, this can’t be right…”) has something to do with that. But don’t let that throw you.

La Unica makes amazing, fresh tortillas, addictive pico de gallo and beautiful breads, buns and rolls like the colorful pan dulce (literally, “sweet bread”) shown at the top of this post. Pretty much anything on the menu is good (I’ve had about eight different tacos here, all worth the drive) and you can order specialities like tamales as well. To see the rotating menu, follow La Unica on Facebook.

Mexican-Needlework

Acapulco Mexican Restaurant in Fargo, ND
This is going to be my least comprehensive review ever, became I only eat one thing at Acapulco — arroz con pollo. It’s rare for me to order the same thing at a restaurant, but this comforting chicken and rice combination is just so addictive that I just can’t help it.

But don’t worry, my friends tell me the rest of the menu is good, as well. Oh, and this place has killer lunch specials too. It’s entirely possible to get an whole meal (and not your standard lunch sized entree, either) for less than you’d pay for a jumbo margarita.

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Inside El Toro in Wahpeton, ND

El Toro in Wahpeton, ND
An authentic Mexican joint in small city like Wahpeton is a fantastic surprise. The chips and salsa are addictive and the menu is surprisingly comprehensive.

I think this place’s strength is that it serves a style of Mexican food that’s familiar to a stereotypically Midwestern palate and does it well. The food is only mildly spicy and strong on comforting rice and beans combinations and sauces with a little savory, salty depth.

Mango’s Mexican and American Grill in Fargo, ND
What Mango’s lacks in curb appeal (it’s attached to a gas station, which is a little odd) it makes up for in taste and affordability. This is another place with big portions and great prices, especially at lunch. That, combined with the cheap drinks, make it a budget-friendly local favorite — and a closely guarded one at that.

Mango’s has a deep menu, so try something different like Molcajete for Two (enough grilled meat and veggies to share) or enchiladas poblanos with mole sauce. The housemade guacamole is popular too.

Vintage-Mexican-Table-Linens

So what’s your favorite Mexican restaurant — in North Dakota, Minnesota or anywhere in the world? What’s your favorite Mexican dish? What non-American foods would people be surprised to find in your hometown?

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