MB Foodhouse Serves Masterful Tex-Mex in North Loop Galley 

Minneapolis’ own Moodie Black made the move after building a cult following at HeadFlyer Brewing and Five Watt Coffee
Kristen Martinez
Kristen Martinez

Photo by Kevin Kramer

While most of us feel misunderstood from time to time, Kristen Martinez has been dodging and redirecting misunderstandings ever since she formed Moodie Black more than a decade ago. 

Now based in Minneapolis after stints in Arizona and Los Angeles, the noise-rap group are often filed and forgotten alongside Death Grips despite several key differences between their brash sounds. Not to mention the fact that Moodie Black’s previous incarnation (GAHEDiNDIE) and Martinez’s own KonGeror project were rewriting the rules of underground rap several years before Death Grips’ debut album dropped.   

“As soon as they broke,” explains Martinez, “I knew we were going to have an uphill battle convincing people we are our own thing. I believe it’s impacted our trajectory in that people don’t give us a fair listen; they listen with DG-colored headphones…. People never get a chance to hear all the things we contribute to the genre: our atmosphere, our influences, the melodies, the beauty.”

Mirroring these misconceptions are the blank stares and snap judgments that have defined much of Martinez’s life as a trans woman, something she’s especially noticed within the more conservative and regressive corners of the restaurant world.

Enter: MB Foodhouse, a way for Martinez to bring her culinary background—a Tex-Mex template forged by revelatory family recipes and her upbringing along the border in El Paso—full circle with the fearless spirit of Moodie Black’s music. 

The two are so intertwined that Martinez’s fellow taco-and-taquito-slinger is her longtime friend and bandmate, guitarist Sean Lindahl. MB Foodhouse’s menacing logo and look, on the other hand, have been overseen by Jamee Varda, Martinez’s partner for the past 14 years and the artist responsible for Moodie Black’s visuals. 

In the following interview, Martinez discusses how MB Foodhouse first built its cult following at a weekly HeadFlyer Brewing residency and semi-permanent Five Watt Coffee pop-up, and what we can expect from its new home in North Loop Galley.

MB Foodhouse, 729 N. Washington Ave., Minneapolis, mbfoodhouse.com

MB the Carnitas taco, chips, and verde salsa with Beer from the bar
The carnitas taco, chips, and verde salsa with beer from the bar

Photo by Kevin Kramer

Congrats on earning a spot in the North Loop Galley. Did that opportunity come out of the blue and force you to end your lease with Five Watt Coffee early? 

Thanks! We actually tried to stay at Five Watt, but we weren’t able to build out a more realized kitchen space. For a few months we had been looking around at places we could move as the demand was such that our current setup was going to be difficult to pull off, especially during the winter months. 

I had been a regular at the North Loop Galley and had a bit of a relationship with the Wrecktangle Pizza people. On a whim, I asked what their situation was and they told me a space was actually open. I contacted the owner and the rest took off almost instantly. It really saved us from having to endure a brutal winter running from commissaries and trying to serve good food that could only be so fresh.

Is having a presence in a popular food hall the most ideal position you could be in right now? One that gives you a chance to continue building your brand in a spot full of like-minded small businesses? 

Totally. It’s a great situation for us to not only grow our brand, but learn from people that know way more than we do. 

I feel like the original idea was for North Loop Galley’s tenants to use it as a springboard to build a following and eventually open their own space. But is it more of a year-long lease now, with an option for renewal after that?

I believe that’s still what they hope businesses can do, but most of the spots that have been there have stayed and been happy with the situation. Coming out of the pandemic, I heard they did an excellent job maintaining their current tenants’ needs, and everyone seemed to help each other make it through. As for us, it’s a perfect situation to take our place to the next level and hopefully make the Galley a destination in the process.

Are you hoping to have your own restaurant down the road, or are you worried that would get in the way of your music?

Yeah! Our vision is to eventually get our own spot that will also serve as a part-time venue space. I am even interested in having a few locations and being able to tour while running this business.

What are your plans for Moodie Black in the coming year? Are you doing a full-on tour at some point, or more one-off gigs, like your recent dates with Sleigh Bells? How about another Moodhouse Fest

We are full-on with Moodie Black. We have the biggest tour of our career this summer, and it kills me that I can’t tell you who it is with yet. We have been waiting to do our second Moodhouse Fest, and it’s something we totally intend on bringing back once things make sense, pandemic-wise, again. We want to make it happen with some of the top names in noise rap and would love to do it at First Avenue. We will see.

What were those recent Sleigh Bells shows like? Strange? Surreal? Invigorating? Long overdue? 

All those things, but also validating. We actually had to say no to doing more dates because of the taco shop, but it’s all part of the plan. Sleigh Bells were incredible, and our lineup together was absolutely perfect.

Have you started working on the follow-up to F U Z Z yet? If so, what does it sound like so far?

Of course! We are trying to get something done before the summer tour. As for how it sounds? Further and further into…whatever it is we do?

Bringing things back to MB Foodhouse, can you talk about one of your earliest, most formative memories related to food?

That’s easy! My grandma used to make me an amazing breakfast every morning before school—simple things like chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, [hot dogs] and egg, and toast with butter, cinnamon, and sugar. The best. When I got older and came back home she would ask me every morning what I wanted to eat. I was spoiled.

When did you gravitate toward, cooking yourself? What did you like about it?

It’s something I always did. I just watched my parents and grandma do it, and through that just kind of knew how to make things. When I would be home alone I would cook simple things for myself. 

I started getting really into it after a couple years in college. I think, like many things I do, I just wanted to commit and see how good I could get at it. I got obsessed. Watching YouTube videos, cooking every night, asking my mom and grandma questions. It became an extension of what I was doing with music in a lot of ways.

I feel like a lot of people don’t get how massive Texas is, and how different the food can be in different corners of the state. Can you talk about some of the distinct flavors, dishes, and techniques of Tex-Mex food within El Paso and how it’s different from other parts of the state?

El Paso is totally unique in that respect. The food is simple and built out of necessity and what people have available. Being a border town, you get that perfect mash-up of things like hot dogs clashing with beans and tacos. Burgers are a big thing. But the style of burger is thin patties, mustard, and jalapeños. 

Something [else that’s] unique to El Paso is Chico’s Tacos, which is the inspiration for our rolled taquitos drowned in red sauce. The rumor was that the cheese was the secret, and that it was government cheese, which was delicious. So you see that distinction of what is considered “cheap” and how El Pasoans made those things a delicacy. That’s the beauty of El Paso and the ethos we are carrying into Foodhouse.

Does it bother you how dismissive many people are of Tex-Mex food, largely because they haven’t had good versions of it?

I think people just don’t know. It’s a lot like MB; people don’t have a reference point for things, so they dismiss them. I mostly just feel bad for them because they are missing out on some super satisfying food.

When did you first move to Minneapolis, and what brought you here?

We first came to Minneapolis in 2008. We have come and gone—touring, living in Arizona, California, etc. We came to be a part of the music scene back then. We realized really quickly that it may not have been the best fit, but the scene was also changing a lot at that time. A lot of people had started moving here to be a part of it, and I think we kind of killed it off a bit.

You left for L.A. right? Why did you leave and what brought you back?

Yeah! L.A. was amazing. We had an opportunity to do some things musically, but actually ended up working on a taco truck. I have a partner that’s from Minnesota, and things just weren’t working long-term in L.A., so we came back here.

Did you work in the restaurant industry before launching MB Foodhouse? What made you want to develop your own menu and launch your own business? Is it something you’d always thought about, or more of a necessity since music doesn’t pay what it used to anymore?

Yeah! We did the food-truck stint in L.A. for a year, which was incredible. Before that I tried to work at this really nice place out there and they offered me a prep position, which was awesome because I had no experience [laughs]. 

But then we came out here, and I worked at Italian Eatery as a prep cook and on the line for awhile. I learned a ton from that spot. I had been cooking at home and posting pics on our Instagram, and people started asking why we don’t open a spot. That’s when I started to consider doing something eventually. 

However, I had no real plans to do it until the pandemic happened and we couldn’t tour. I figured we could do pop-ups for a while and then fell into the opportunity at Five Watt. Things just snowballed from there. 

Since touring has been a no-go, it’s been easy to take time to build this idea we have—a sustainable business that we can leave from time to time to tour. I think there’s plenty of money to be made in music; you just have to be lucky enough to find the right situations. Sean and I did those three shows and made as much as a week at Foodhouse.

How has your vision for MB Foodhouse evolved over the past year? Did pop-ups like your HeadFlyer residency encourage you to expand your offerings and try things like tortas and other dishes that would make sense for dinner as well?

Our vision of Foodhouse has always been to be a more fully realized Tex-Mex spot, similar to the ones in Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, etc. A big part of that is flour tortillas and breakfast, so that was the foundation, but we also wanted to offer more of a barbecue mix: rib tips, chicken wings, etc. We never had a proper kitchen set up to really produce those offerings the right way, so we did the best we could with what we had. The tortas and chango fries were the easiest to showcase but had challenges. They will be more fully realized at the North Loop.

What were some of your favorite specials from the Lyndale iteration of MB Foodhouse? Can we expect to see any of them at North Loop Galley?

The smoked carnitas, the sloppy joe—we wanted to do a burger, which we will! But yeah, you can expect to see all sorts of wild specials at the North Loop. Eventually, things like chicken wings and rib tips will be staples.

What are some key items we can expect at North Loop? How about new additions you’re hoping to make now that you have more of a proper kitchen? 

[Laughs] The taquitos and hand-cut fries will be crisper since the food won’t have to sit on a warming table for long periods of time. Things like that and made-to-order breakfast [items] are going to completely enhance what we do there.

How does what you’re making fit in with, or stand out from, other Mexican food that’s being made in the Twin Cities? 

There’s nothing like what we do in the Twin Cities, which is why we wanted to offer it. There is a lot of great Mexican food here, but it doesn’t have that Southwest taste and perspective. It’s a different flavor. The spices we bring in are from New Mexico, and [we make] small tweaks to classics; our carnitas don’t taste like carnitas, and our macha barbecue is wildly different from just a chicken taco.

What are a few of your favorite dishes at other Mexican restaurants around the Twin Cities?

Anything Nixta and chef Gus [Romero] do is tremendous! We use their corn tortillas and they have been extremely welcoming and nice to us. Manny’s Tortas is incredible. I think all of the Mexican restaurants out here have a signature item: Los Ocampo for the al pastor, Taco Taxi for a classic street taco, Sonora Grill for beef-fat flour tortillas, Hamburguesas El Gordo with Mexican-style burgers, the more upscale type of cuisine at Petite León….

You put your podcast on pause earlier this year. Are you planning on bringing it back soon as a way to bridge the closely knit worlds of music and food?

It will definitely come back! We only took a pause because it was hard to schedule interviews with everything going on for everyone. We actually started interviewing chefs like Steph [Miller], who owns Butterhorn in Bismarck. Chef Gus will be next!

Musicians are often super into food because of the travel that goes hand-in-hand with touring, and the escape that cooking offers from the creative process. What are a few places in the world you can’t wait to go back to with Moodie Black because of the food? 

Extremely easy to answer: France, specifically Lyon. That’s our home away from home—amazing food. Also Spain! Great tapas!

Can you talk a little bit about Sean and what he brings to the table on both the music and food front? Was he also into cooking before MB Foodhouse opened, or did you show him the ropes along the way?

I have been friends with Sean since middle school. He’s my best friend who I have convinced to go on this crazy journey. A true ride-or-die. An amazing guitar player. Without Sean, there is no MB. No Foodhouse. He does the grunt work. He works his ass off. 

Funny enough, he has worked in the fast-food industry for way longer than I have worked in food, so he’s great at managing and running the POS system and logistics. The only things I need to show him are the actual cooking and prep techniques. Everything else, we are good to go.

What are some key things you’ve learned from being an underground musician that also apply to being a food-driven entrepreneur? It could be anything from a certain work ethic to simply being a more open-minded person.

Funny enough, it’s actually the other way around; I think cooking and being in this industry has actually taught me more about music. I suppose we took to running a food spot because I am obsessive and demand excellence, so I prepare for everything we do like it’s live-or-die. The only reason we are doing tacos is because it’s all about Moodie Black. All these things are one in the same. 

What the music scene can learn from the food scene in Minneapolis is that we can work together, share resources, and all be successful. There’s a lane for everyone, but you have to actually put in the work. 

How does the lane MB Foodhouse is trying to carve relate back to your own experiences as a trans woman?

Part of why we started MB Foodhouse was to be a space where trans/queer people could go comfortably to have a taco or barbecue. I am at the intersection of so many cultures that are known for not understanding LGTBQ issues. I know what it’s like to feel and be unsafe in a food spot predominantly made up of my cultures. Mexican. Black. I avoid those spots for my own safety. 

I hope we can be a way for other queer humans to enjoy their culture without having to be distracted by harassment, stares, awkwardness. It’s a whole thing.

Can you share an example of a time where you didn’t feel comfortable within a restaurant due to your gender, and how you’d like to break down these barriers and encourage tolerance with your own food? 

That’s actually tough to answer because there are so many instances. If I’m lucky, it’s mostly stares. But it’s been laughing, mocking, sometimes people try to take pictures, I’ve been followed, etc. 

I have really changed a lot of what I do because of it. There are places I just won’t go, or I don’t go alone. The best way that I have found to contribute energy against it is to just do the best I can with what we are doing. 

It’s been tough to try and purposely curate a safe space, because it’s just not possible to control an environment where the public is welcome. We have had people in our shop misgender me, and it’s a reminder of how pervasive this lack of empathy or understanding for trans women is. 

It’s frustrating that I can’t do more to combat it in the immediate [future] for myself and others, but I ultimately feel like being successful in this cis-dominant world could help make a dent for trans people in general. I know we are having an impact based on conversations I’ve had with supporters or people that benefit from my visibility, art, or podcasts. It still feels futile, but I’m oddly an optimist in this case.

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