WHEN YOU WALK INTO MARIA’S CAFÉ, you feel as if the owner, Maria Hoyos, has welcomed you into her living room. A stack of Gente de Minnesota Spanish-language newspapers sits next to the counter (Hoyos hails from Colombia), ethnic knickknacks decorate a ledge, a bike helmet rests on top of the coat rack, and baby photos of Hoyos’s grandson are tacked up on the wall. Most of the tables are occupied: some patrons conduct business meetings, papers spread out on the table; others are longtime friends, catching up over cups of coffee. Perhaps influenced by the slower-paced South American culture, Maria’s guests instinctively linger.
East Franklin used to be a place that many passed through quickly. Over the last decade, extensive redevelopment (including the American Indian–owned Ancient Trader’s Market, where Maria’s is located) has perked up the crime-plagued neighborhood. Today, a shiny Volvo with a license plate that says “Ojibwa” pulls into the Market’s parking lot.
This is exactly the sort of place political figures like to be seen: a neighborhood melting pot (or frying griddle). It’s just the right mix of down-with-the-people and hip-to-the-scene, as evidenced by the graying, fanny-packin’ patron wearing a “Vote for Pedro” T-shirt from Napoleon Dynamite. Since most of the street corners near here have been cleared of dealers, pancakes are the drug of choice. In fact, the restaurant has expanded twice to feed the local addiction. “We still don’t have room,” says Maria’s daughter-in-law, Nancy, who manages the café.
The breakfast menu features about a dozen types of flapjacks, the signature variety being cachapas Venezolanas. (These Venezuelan corn pancakes were made famous when Hoyos worked at Rick’s Ol’ Time Café in south Minneapolis. And breakfast buffs will also remember them from Maria’s first solo venture, Maria’s Breakfast Club, near the Aqua City Motel on Lyndale Avenue.) Their texture is part pancake/part pudding, the consistency of baked creamed corn. Pancake fanatics who like theirs salty/sweet top the cachapas with Cotija cheese, the so-called “Parmesan of Mexico”—fluffy flakes that pile up like snow.
The wild-rice cakes have a drier, more wholesome texture, and a faintly nutty flavor that’s imparted by the grain. The fruit pancakes are perhaps the best—especially the mango and raspberry. Bits of fruit are mixed into the batter, and the cakes are topped with a gloss of homemade fruit purée. The plantain pancakes were the only ones that didn’t make us flip. The cakes were tough (plantains, considered “cooking bananas,” are starchier than regular bananas and not as sweet) and had a bitter finish caused, perhaps, by too much of a leavening agent. No one but Hoyos knows the recipes. “Not even me,” says her daughter-in-law.
There are so many breakfast dishes to taste (for instance, the Huevos Pericos: scrambled eggs with tomatoes, green and white onions, cheese, and spices), it would take the whole morning to work through them all. But if you hang around long enough, you can always order lunch.
1113 E. Franklin Ave.