My interest in Tacos El Kevin was first sparked one morning during my commute, when I spotted a navy banner strapped to the right side of Portland Market. Its dignified script bore an all-caps declaration: TACOS EL KEVIN.
The name alone made my mind sprout with culinary possibilities. Will there be Kevinadillas? Kevin Al Pastor? I was captivated.
Within the past month, a brand new sign went up, one that practically screamed at me from the corner. Tacos El Kevin had been transformed, the humble banner replaced with giant sign featuring a cartoon man bearing a toothy grin, an attractive taco hoisted triumphantly above his head. It was magnificent.
I knew what had to be done: I MUST STOP.
And so, on a gray day, I wandered into Portland Market. Hunger spirals in my eyes, I ventured past the jars of pink-tipped incense and end caps stuffed with puffed snack bags. Tacos El Kevin is located past the display case filled with glass pipes and plastic sunglasses, but before the small fridge of walking beers. The menu sign is bright and matches the slickness of the one outside.
Kevin offers tacos, tortas, and quesadillas; there’s a fried fish platter and the perennial wings, fries, and hamburgers for those who Just Can’t Taco. There’s a nod to vegetarians with a rice taco platter, which features a hard boiled egg on the side.
Scanning down the meat list past the taqueria familiars (asada/al pastor/pollo), I spot my secret filthy love: tripas. These are braised cow intestines, and I only became familiar with them because once, I ordered them by accident. Good god, are they amazing. When they get crispy and golden on a flat top, they take on a delightful chewy fatiness not unlike the ends of pan-cooked bacon. Drizzled with hot sauce and served with onions and cilantro, they’re divine -- even if I still feel a little sucia for loving them so much.
I place my taco order and wait while cruising the chest freezer filled with sundae cups and strawberry shortcake bars and miming the tiny dancing pineapple man on the counter, swaying to a silent hula. Tacos El Kevin is a takeout operation, so don’t expect to eat there. The tacos appear in a foam box and I grab them and head back to my apartment, where I plop on the couch and crack the box.
WHAT A SIGHT TO BEHOLD. Fuck, Kevin must moonlight as a food stylist. The grilled onions! Perfectly placed salsa tubs! Carefully tucked tacos and heavy sprinkling of cilantro. I almost cried. We all know that oftentimes takeout food becomes tainted by the drive home: What was once beguiling turns into Instant Leftovers, sweaty and sad. None of these tacos were soggy or slick with grease. Everything was kept light.
For some, this lack of juice might be a disappointment, but I ate five of these tacos and still felt like I could move afterwards -- a rare feat! The lime wedges and radish slices were crisp; the grilled onions were tasty when dipped into the salsa. I’d ordered two carnitas tacos, two al pastor, and one tripas. The carnitas tacos were filled with chopped bits of pork chop, perfectly crispy and juicy. Two bites contained chewier fatty bits, but I’m not sweating it. In fact… I’m actually kinda into it. The al pastor was one of my favorite versions in town, with some sweetness, but not deep-makeout-with-a-pineapple sweet. The meat had a deep BBQ flavor and enough heat to tickle the back of my throat, but I didn’t need to leap for a sip of water. And they were made even better by a glug of the orange-red salsa, which added another level of fire. (The accompanying green salsa was tomatillo based and a bit thin; it adds some pleasant moisture but it doesn’t transport a lot of flavor.)
Onto the main event: THE TRIPAS!!! So buttery soft, without any chewy spring, these were especially delicious slathered with the red-orange salsa. Tripas is not an easy meat to cook properly, and these were prepared with skill. There were a few golden crisped bits, and a few more minutes on the flat top would have made them absolute perfection. But that’s just something I’ll mention when I head back in -- ahem, tomorrow -- for more.
Above all, I appreciate the ambition of Tacos El Kevin, with the bold signs, pretty as a picture takeout boxes and high quality eats, even down to the garnishes. This place has guts -- and I'm not just talking about the tripas. They may be operating out of a shoebox-sized kitchen in a corner store, but there’s a twinkle and a dream in that six-foot-high sign outside, luring in those zooming by.
My recommendation? Once the sun peeks out again, hop on your bike and head to Portland Market. Order a few tacos from Kevin and grab a blue sports drink, then sit on the benches outside to refuel before pedaling further down Portland Avenue, rejuvenated.
Tacos El Kevin
3751 Portland Ave. S., Minneapolis