La Sirena Gorda, Wallet-Friendly Seafood for Fishy Financial Times

A funny thing happens with restaurants: they get covered when they’re new, but after the big unveiling they get lost in the shuffle, set aside for the next next-big-thing. The quality of the food didn’t dim, they just stopped being a timely news story.

Some of those restaurants never draw a steady stream of customers to stay open. Babalu is one of those places. And some restaurants, like La Sirena Gorda, also from restauranteur Alfonso Menendez, truck along, doing well enough to outlast the initial hype and become a mainstay on the culinary scene.

Babalu, an upscale, three-plus dollar-sign eatery, attracted the suit-clad and savvy — just not enough of them. Like some of its upper-tier brethren (see: D’amico Cucina), it closed a mere five months ago, not long after it opened in its new-ish North Loop digs.

But three years after its debut, La Sirena Gorda is still piling plates full of fresh seafood. No tales of economic downturn here. No — this is about a man cooking real food that you will really love. Food that’s fresh, well-prepared, and tastes like it could have been served at the three-dollar-sign Babalu, but is served up for single-dollar-sign prices. In fact, the ceviche, fish tacos, and soup were all on the menu at Babalu. Your tastebuds can’t tell that it’s served on styrofoam, but your pocketbook will notice.

Fresh, Tasty, and Exotic
The first thing to try is the hibiscus tea. Alfonso hands it over the counter — “You like it?” An emphatic nod — “Yes!” “It’s the syrup. I fly in dried hibiscus and make it myself. Other places use pre-made hibiscus syrup. It’s not as good.” And he pulls out a tub of dried flowers to illustrate.

The ceviche tostada I had on a previous visit crossed my mind as I ordered (I thought about it for a week after my first visit), but no — No! — I would try something new today. Today I would yield to the chef (is there a Spanish word for “omikase”?), and the chef decided I would eat as the honeymooners eat. Baby octopus (An aphrodisiac, I’m told. My husband would be pleased.) in soup and taco form!

The soup is berry-sweet and vinegary all at once, and then the dew starts forming on your eyebrows and you realize you’ve been hoodwinked into eating potently spicy soup. But slowing down to mop your forehead isn’t an option because the spoon’s already made its way back into the bowl and into your mouth — it’s just that good. The fruitiness might be from the hibiscus syrup striking another lucky dish, or just the freshness of the tomatoes with lime juice. The octopus was good here, but just about anything would taste good in this broth. The soup is called vuelva a la vida — “come back to life” — commonly eaten at the early morning fish markets by exhausted club-goers to revive themselves after being up all night. It’s clear that this could wake just about anybody up.

The octopus taco proved an excellent pairing for the soup. The crisp lettuce topping cooled while the mixture of baby octopus, corn, pico de gallo, white onion, and cilantro provided the real substance of the meal. The chipotle mayo that binds the taco “filling” lends a steady backbone of heat to the dish, even if it detracts from any intended authenticity (it can be ordered without, but who are we to argue with the chef?). Try to get a chunk of tostada in with each bite — the saltiness of it is just enough to bring balance to the ingredients. Luckily, each one is just the right size if you don’t get too greedy with the first couple of forkfuls.

Culinary Acclaim
It can’t go unmentioned that La Sirena Gorda has won awards for its fish tacos and flan — but please don’t overlook the Acapulco-style key lime pie. Instead of being a custard-filled graham cracker crust concoction you’d find at Red Lobster and every other pie shop in town, this one has multiple layers, each a delicious, cakey addition to the one before it. And there’s nothing fake about this pie either — no green food coloring, just a nuanced lime taste with homemade hibiscus marmalade drizzled over the top.

But, get there while you can still be greeted by Alfonso — he’s building a house in Cancun and it’s almost finished. He’s selling the business to his daughter. I’m sure she’ll do fine, but I’m crossing my fingers that he’ll tire of swinging in a hammock 365 days a year and long for the bitter, cold Minnesota winters, bringing back with him his marisquerial talents.

La Sirena Gorda
Midtown Global Market
920 East Lake Street
Minneapolis, MN 55407


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