When the snow makes a hasty retreat each year, the first tendrils of the summer aroma of charred sweet corn emanate from a parking lot on Cesar Chavez Street in Saint Paul. Crowds gather around the roasters behind El Burrito Mercado as soon as elote season kicks off, ready to exchange cash for hot-off-the-grill corn.
Since 1979, this market and restaurant have been touchstones for Minnesota’s Mexican community, known for many years as a place for Mexicans from the far reaches of the Twin Cities region to buy chiles, fresh masa, and, in the summer, those cobs of charred corn slathered in mayo and queso fresco and smacked with a smattering of chile salt. The beginning of elote season — which runs through late autumn — is as sure a sign of spring in St. Paul as the Cinco de Mayo parade that starts just a few blocks away.
In 1979, Tomas and Maria Silva opened El Burrito as an 800-square-foot market in Saint Paul, with the sole intent to sell a few Mexican grocery staples to other immigrants. The couple arrived in Minnesota as migrant workers from Aguascalientes, a state in Central Mexico. At their store, they began by selling basic ingredients, such as tortillas and chiles, to serve the burgeoning Mexican community in Saint Paul.
Today, El Burrito comprises two restaurants, a deli, a food truck, and a packaged food company, not to mention a market that has more than doubled in size.
When the Silvas retired in 2015, they entrusted their legacy and all of the businesses to their daughters, and niece Analita Silva. Already, the next generation of children are finding summer jobs at the restaurant and spending after-school hours tucked into corners doing homework.
As a child, Milissa Diaz remembers the store flooding with customers after mass let out at the nearby Our Lady of Guadalupe church; many families traveled from outside the metro to attend the service. “After Spanish mass, everybody would come in to stock up on ingredients,” says Diaz. “My mother’s faith has always been a driving force in the business as well. Often, [business] meetings would include a prayer.”
Ruth Erickson, of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, was one of those early patrons who would drive three and a half hours down from the small paper-mill town for chance to stock her pantry with familiar ingredients. Her family was one of the few Mexican families in Grand Rapids at that time, and she was glad to have El Burrito within a day’s drive. Her daughter Aisha Strickland, now living in the metro area, still relishes a trip across town for the nostalgia — and those elotes. “You can always count on the corn they sell in the parking lot to be yummy,” says Strickland. “And the menudo is perfect post-hangover food.”
The Silvas began their business with a station wagon, using it to drive back and forth to tortillerias in Chicago or Milwaukee, where they’d buy items to stock the shelves of the market. Soon, they upgraded to hauling stock in a van, then a truck, eventually employing large trucking companies to supply the demand.
When it was ready to expand, the business moved across the street to its current location, and the Silvas hired a baker so they could sell Mexican breads and pastries. Maria Silva was already making her family recipes of moles, enchiladas, pozole, and beans. Soon a deli case was added to accommodate those dishes, and over the decades, the Silvas added salsas, tamales, ceviche, and more as demand grew and the items required more and more space.
The addition of a restaurant in 1995 meant a seating area for diners to enjoy burritos with scoops of refried pinto beans. Silva says people begged for the chance to have a margarita with those meals, which led to the addition of a bar. Recently, seating expanded again to add a larger adjoining dining room and an outdoor patio.
As El Burrito was growing, so too were the Silva children. After college, Milissa Diaz worked in marketing and for the mayor’s office, but she eventually felt called back to the family business, and started shaking up their marketing efforts to appeal to a wider swath of customers.
Before Milissa Diaz got involved with the restaurant, the only advertising El Burrito did was on El Rey, the local Spanish-language radio station. Diaz wanted to try something that felt radical at the time: a sponsorship on a pop-culture chat radio show called The Weekly Dish. Mentions of green chorizo; tamale-making parties, or tamalades; and the abundance of chile varieties brought new faces poking around the grocery aisles, from demographics that reached beyond their loyal base of local immigrants. Cooking classes Diaz hosted sold out quickly. It was an education for The Weekly Dish’s co-host Stephanie Hansen. “I had to learn how to say ‘asado,’” she says. Now El Burrito is Hansen’s go-to catering company for events.
In the summer of 2018, El Burrito opened a second restaurant, in South Minneapolis. The location had been Pepitos, another family-owned Mexican restaurant that had been in the space for 46 years. Pepito’s owner, Joe Minjares, was battling pulmonary fibrosis that would eventually require a transplant, so his family made the decision to close. The building owners then approached Diaz, “They wanted another Mexican family restaurant in there.”
Even as things change and grow for the El Burrito team, loyal customers remain true to the memories made there through the years. Aisha Strickland and her husband are already planning a trip from the western Minneapolis suburbs to the St. Paul parking lot for their first elotes of the season. Plus, the next generation of the Silva family is already being brought into the business. Diaz showed off pictures of her niece, who is co-owner Analita Silva’s new baby girl. One photo shows the infant with her eyes squeezed shut, sporting a pink bow over her wispy black hair, attending her first family business meeting.