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Prior Lake chef Miguel Urrutia follows dreams, brings flavors of Mexico to El Jefe Cocina & Bar

  • 5 min to read

Chef Miguel Urrutia is particularly proud of the mole sauce. The recipe came from his mother, who is 83 years old, “stubborn as can be,” still lives in Mexico and resists any and all attempts to help her in the kitchen.

“I almost forced my mom to give the recipe to me,” Urrutia, of Prior Lake, said. “She kept saying I didn’t know how to use the blender.”

Served over roasted chicken alongside cilantro-lime rice, the sauce is rich and complex and now available as a dinner entree in Urritia’s new restaurant, El Jefe Cocina & Bar, in Minneapolis.

It joins pan-seared diver scallops and sea bass, blackened walleye and brined pork tenderloin, marinated steaks and dry-rub chicken wings, burgers and Cuban sandwiches topped with house-made pickles, ceviches and soups, waffles and hashes.

And all that is in addition to the tacos, burritos, chips and salsas that made Urrutia’s food truck, El Jefe Mexican Cuisine, a hit throughout the Twin Cities.

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Barbacoa tacos are one of the menu items available at both El Jefe Cocina & Bar restaurant and the El Jefe Mexican Cuisine food truck.

“This is surreal,” said Urrutia’s wife, Rojin, said during their first brunch service at the new restaurant Sunday, May 6. “It’s something that’s been a dream that, now, is in real life.”

And it’s taken a lot of coffee.

“I need at least 32 ounces,” Urrutia said, as he prepared for the restaurant’s soft open, which started with lunch on Friday, May 4, and continued into dinner on Saturday and brunch on Sunday. The grand opening was Monday, May 7.

In between all of that, Urrutia catered a wedding and took part of the Prior Lake Farmers’ Market — where he first got his start selling homemade chips and salsa several years ago.

He was already working as a chef at the time, but a food stand — followed by a food trailer and, finally, the food truck — gave Urrutia a special way to explore interesting culinary concepts while sharing the flavors that defined his childhood in Mexico.

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A server delivers plates of food to a table at El Jefe Cocina & Bar in South Minneapolis.

About half of the dishes available in the restaurant feature sauces made from dried Mexican peppers, including guajillo, chile ancho, and mulato peppers. A chipotle sauce produced in Texas adds color and flavor to the chipotle crema inspired by a spread Urrutia would make as a small child to top Saltine crackers.

The food truck and restaurant’s names even come from Urrutia’s childhood, as both are named after his mother. Urrutia, his six sisters, and brother called her “Jefa,” meaning “boss,” he explained.

The name just seemed to fit with what Urrutia hoped to bring to the community through his food.

“She always cooked for everyone, since I can remember,” Urrutia said.

A DREAM

Urrutia came to the United States from Mexico at the age of 16 without a clear idea of what he wanted to do. Having worked in his father’s restaurant for pocket money as a child, it was only natural to find his way into another kitchen, where his interest in food continued to grow.

He finished high school in the U.S., but returned to Mexico before completing community college, to be with his mother as she underwent surgery, he said.

He went to Los Angeles after returning to the U.S., and worked at both a restaurant and a butcher shop, where he learned about how to properly cut and prepare meat.

But everything changed in 1993, when Urrutia decided to visit a cousin in the Twin Cities and fell in love with the Minnesota summer.

“I quit my job over the phone,” he said. “It was so new...Then winter came and I was pulling my hair out because it was too freaking cold.”

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Churro doughnuts at El Jefe Cocina and Bar are topped with cinnamon sugar and drizzled in chocolate.

In Minnesota, Urrutia began to specialize in opening restaurants, including more than a dozen Rainforest Cafes and Pittsburgh Blue Steakhouse in Maple Grove, where Urrutia worked from 2007 to this April.

But there was always the dream of his own restaurant, fed by the enthusiastic response to his food at farmers’ markets and events.

“And here we are,” Urrutia said, gesturing at the restaurant around him: Walls decorated with the black and white designs from the El Jefe food truck, splashes of a vivid, ocean blue, and a large painting made by his 16-year-old son, Dante, over a collage that features photos and articles from the Urrutia family’s journey to this place.

A HOME

Urrutia spent years looking for the right location for a small bistro, seriously considering buildings in Jordan and Lakeville, but something always came up. Then, this location opened up in South Minneapolis, only a short drive away from where he lives in Prior Lake with his wife, Rojin, and their children.

“I looked, I saw it. I said I wanted it,” he said. “I knew this was it.”

The deal went through in the beginning of March, and the mad sprint to a May opening began, requiring 12-16 hour days at the restaurant, Urrutia said.

Though exhausting, the entire process has also been encouraging, he said.

When cleaning and painting the restaurant during the 20-degree March weather, there was still a lot of foot traffic, with people walking their dogs and getting groceries at a nearby Kowalski’s market, Urrutia said.

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Emma Reiland tried both the churro doughnuts and berry waffle at El Jefe Cocina & Bar in South Minneapolis. She preferred the waffle, but greatly enjoyed both.

Neighboring businesses and nearby residents alike have been supportive of the addition to their neighborhood, with several people visiting nearby Wild Mind Artisan Ales to check out Urrutia’s work, when El Jefe’s food truck was stationed there last month.

Now, the restaurant is ready to open its doors to the community.

ROLLING ON

Many of the new dishes available at El Jefe Cocina & Bar would not have been possible without a full kitchen in a permanent location. And the scope of each menu — distinct for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch — is not the kind of thing that can be replicated on the move.

But the new and classic menu items blend nicely, each showcasing Urrutia’s preference for dishes that are rich in flavor, but don’t obscure the tastes of other ingredients.

“You taste everything on it. Not just the spice,” he explained.

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Chef Miguel Urrutia, owner of El Jefe Mexican Cuisine Food Truck, opened El Jefe Cocina & Bar in South Minneapolis this May.

As a chef, Urrutia also loves working with seafood, which becomes readily apparent scanning the menu options — which include three types of ceviche: wild tilapia, sushi-grade tuna, and wild Mexican shrimp — and chatting about how they are sourced to guarantee the most flavor and the smallest environmental impact.

New dessert options include the Taco Loco, made with a crisp vanilla waffle “taco shell” and stuffed with ice cream from Minneapolis-based Sebastian’s. Right now, the ice cream is a rich vanilla, topped with a drizzle of chocolate and a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar. But future flavors, custom-developed for El Jefe, could include spicy mango and horchata, Urrutia said.

And then, of course, there’s the full bar.

The cocktails are all made with freshly squeezed citrus juice. There’s no sweet-and-sour mix in the margaritas, so you can taste the freshness of every single ingredient, Urrutia said.

The Bloody Miguel — Urrutia’s take on a Bloody Mary — is crafted with a house-made mix and topped with sweet peppers, house-made pickle spears, and a shrimp. There’s also a dash of queso fresco inside that lends an unexpected creaminess.

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“Bloody Miguels” are the house Bloody Mary at El Jefe Cocina & Bar.

Fans of the truck, which has delighted diners in Prior Lake, Savage, Jordan, Minneapolis, Eagan, Mound, New Prague, Shakopee, Waconia, and Lakeville, will be excited to discover that not only does Urrutia expect to maintain its presence, but to expand it.

Regulations require that he work from a commercial kitchen, but the space Urrutia rented in Minneapolis wasn’t always available whenever catering opportunities arose, forcing him to turn down work.

“They’re going to be a lot more opportunities now” he said.

Enterprise reporter

Tory Cooney is an enterprise reporter with a love of features writing. She is vivacious, resourceful and enjoys cooking, quilting, snowshoeing and Post-it-notes.

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