Ideal Cafe (Northfield, MN)

  • Karen Cooper and Bruce Schneier
  • Star Tribune South
  • April 20, 2005

To us, the key to Guatemalan food is black beans. We ate them at least once a day during our weeks in Guatemala. It’s an oversimplification to assume that black beans are Guatemalan and pinto beans are Mexican, but that’s what we’ve observed.

Guatemalan food shares several similarities and some subtle differences with its prominent neighbor. We went to the Ideal Cafe in Northfield to remind ourselves of both.

The Ideal Cafe looks like a random nondescript 1960s coffeeshop. The restaurant doesn’t sparkle. It doesn’t have décor. There are six booths along the wall, and six tables in the middle. The kitchen is along the other wall, and there’s a place to order near the front.

But there are two clues that the Ideal Cafe isn’t what it seems. The first is the Spanish “Las Delicias” stenciled on the window. The second is the television tuned to a Spanish-language channel.

There’s only one copy of the menu at the Ideal Cafe. It’s large and laminated, and propped up near the cash register. You order from that menu, find a seat, and wait for your food.

Our review, in three words: have the mole. You can taste the chocolate on which the sauce is based, but there’s no sweetness to it; the overall flavor is subtle, complex, and wonderful—with a spiciness that isn’t overpowering.

Best is the quesadilla mole, which was superb. Quesadillas are often so greasy you can’t really enjoy them, but here the tortillas were hot, the cheese perfectly melted, and the layer of mole gave the whole thing character.

Guatemalan tamales are generally quite soft and moist, so you’ll like these if you tend to think Mexican tamales are dry. Ideal’s are served with pork and a mild chili sauce, and lie on a corn husk. Banana leaves are also a traditional method of steaming tamales, but we suppose they’re hard to come by this far from the tropics.

Chiles rellenos are stuffed with cheese and smothered in a rich tomato sauce. We found this a little salty but otherwise good. The bistek was incredibly tender, and had a very slight sweetness from the sautéed onions and tomatoes served with it.

The burrito was outstanding. We had it with chicken, although you can also get it with beef, cheese, or beans. Ideal serves a meal-sized burrito, though not so large one cannot finish it. The large chunks of chicken were the freshest we’ve tasted in ages. The flavored rice and black beans that made up the filling were hot and the lettuce-tomato-onion trifecta gave it a nice crisp crunch.

Paches are sort of tamales. Potatoes are steamed with masa and a tomato-onion paste that acquires an unattractive color during the cooking process. Paches are not as bland as they could be, but are a weird watery starch. We just didn’t like them very much.

The kitchen is quick, and service is friendly. A meal at the Ideal Cafe won’t dent your budget. And it’s good. What more can you possibly want?

317 Division Street, Northfield
Phone: (507) 664-0200

Hours: Mon–Sat 10:00 AM–8:30 PM

Atmosphere: Very informal
Service: Perfunctory
Sound level: Quiet
Recommended dishes: Burritos, anything with mole
Prices: Entrees 5.99–6.99
Children: No special menu for children

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.