Come for the bugs, stay for the beans
by Aidan Morgan
The Grotto Coffeehouse & Eatery
101 2nd Avenue, Vibank SK
The first thing you discover at the Grotto, Kevin and Cecilia Zimmerman’s unusual restaurant, is that everything you know about Mexican food is wrong.
Or maybe not. Maybe you know more about Mexican food than I’m assuming here. Maybe you’re a famous Mexican chef with a secret thing for Saskatchewan alternative newspapers. Maybe you have an aeronautics degree as well, and you’re building a drone platform that will rain down frijoles negros and sopa con arroz over the suburbs of North America (I have no idea why you’d do that, unless you’re committed to making bombardment delicious).
But chances are good that The Grotto will surprise you, even if you’re the above-hypothesized master Mexican chef with a fleet of drones and a Prairie Dog subscription. Wow, what a specific demographic.
Located about 50 kilometres from Regina in the town of Vibank, The Grotto is best known for its Wednesday and Friday night Mexican meals, which consist of a three-course fixed menu ($39) and a grasshopper option as an add-on.
I know that The Grasshopper Option sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel, but in this case it’s an actual thing that you can order and put in your mouth. You can show up at The Grotto* and say, “Please put grasshoppers in my mouth,” and they’ll get them to within three feet of your face. You’ll have to transport them the final three feet, unless you tip really generously.
The grasshoppers themselves, or chapulines, are crispy little things served on a tortilla chip and a slice of cheese. They’re salty and crunchy and largely dependent on the spices and oil they’re cooked in — the sort of thing you can enjoy with a beer in the afternoon. The only difficult moment for me occurred when I realized that my tongue could distinguish between their bodies and their poky little legs. That’s when I chewed faster and reached for the next one.
After the chapulines and a round of drinks (margaritas with plenty of salt for some at the table, bottles of Negra Modela and Pacifico for the rest), the server came out with a Mexican vegetable soup. I meant to ask about the soup in more detail, but I completely forgot because it tasted so good. (“What is this?” I asked the server. “Mexican vegetable soup,” he replied. And that’s my research technique.)
After more drinks (there seemed to be a lot of those), the main course arrived on sizable plates. No two Mexican nights are identical, but I think our table lucked out. The main dish was something that the Zimmermans have named “Oaxacan chicken”: a barbecued chicken leg marinated in spices for 24 hours and finished over charcoal smoke. It wasn’t my favourite thing on the plate, but it had a deep smoky flavour, and the meat was pleasingly tender (one of my companions found his chicken a little dry, so your mileage may vary, etc.).
What else was on that plate? Everything was on that plate. There was a pork taco covered in salsa fresca and a tomatillo salsa, which tasted unlike any Mexican pork dish I’ve ever had. And there was a tamale with cheese and spinach and chayote, which is a Central American gourd vegetable that resembles an angry old pear. I love chayotes so much that even typing out “angry old pear” makes me hungry. On the side was some salad and calabacitas con elote, or zucchini with corn.
But my favourite thing on that plate, by a mile, were the refried black beans. I’ve made this dish at home plenty of times, sometimes doing fancy stuff like throwing in a whole onion to flavour the beans as they cooked, but I’ve never come close to this flavour. Everybody at the table seemed sort of amazed that black beans could taste so good.
For dessert, the server brought out tres leches cake, which is white cake drenched in evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream. I was agonizingly full by that point, but I kept eating it just because. Because delicious.
The Grotto is not cheap — the bill for me and partner came to $109.00 before tip. And despite my enjoyment of the meal, I can’t say it’s the best Mexican food I’ve ever had in my life (that honour goes to a Mexican restaurant I wandered into in Rapid City, of all places). But I loved the experience, the decor, and the overall feeling of the evening. It wasn’t so much a meal as it was a love letter to the Oaxcan region and its cuisine. The Grotto is worth the trip.
*No you can’t. One does not simply “show up” for Mexican night at The Grotto. One books months in advance. Owner and Mexican food hyper-enthusiast Kevin Zimmerman told me that they’re currently booked up until at least October (although it’s worth checking in case of a cancellation). The Saturday barbecue nights ($80 for a platter for two), while still popular, are not as crowded with petitioners; as of this writing, barbecue night is only booked until August. In any case, book soon if you want to get in for 2013.
WHAT IS IT? The Grotto Coffeehouse & Eatery
WHAT’S IT FOR? Lunch, special occasions, eating until you’re dizzy and need to be carted away
WHEN’S IT OPEN? Weird hours. Monday-Tuesday, 9:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.; Wednesday and Friday, 9:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; Saturday, 5:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. Closed Thursdays and Sundays. Thursdays?
DO YOU THINK THE ZIMMERMANS WILL CREATE A FLEET OF DRONES TO DROP MEXICAN FOOD FROM LOW ALTITUDES? Probably.
IS THERE SOME COOL GROTTO-RELATED TRIVIA I CAN IMPRESS MY FRIENDS WITH? The building in which The Grotto is housed used to be a convent. There’s a post office and a lingerie shop in the building as well? Okay then.