I was in Sioux Falls earlier this past fall to see a dealer that we've been doing business with for sometime, now. We had to meet late in the day because of scheduling conflicts and afterward I asked him if he wanted to go out and get some dinner. He begged off as he had something going on with his wife. So, I was on my own and sort of had a hankering for Mexican or Cajun food. Well, there really isn't any Cajun in Sioux Falls, but there are a handful of Mexican restaurants. On the recommendation of the desk clerk at my hotel, he steered me to Inca, a Mexican restaurant on the south side of Sioux Falls (see map).
In 1997, Julio Espino was sent to Sioux Falls to service sales systems for restaurants who were clients of the company he worked for. He actually drew the short stick to go to Sioux Falls as his colleagues all passed on the assignment. Espino spent some time in Sioux Falls and fell in love with the area. He also found that there was a paucity of Mexican restaurants in the city. He contacted a friend out in Seattle, Danny Navarro, whom Espino knew from the restaurant industry. He convinced Navarro to come out to Sioux Falls to help him open a restaurant. Navarro thought he'd only stay a few weeks to help Espino start up the restaurant, but he ended up staying in Sioux Falls, as well.
Espino had immigrated to the U.S. in the late 80's and helped a number of Mexican immigrants who moved to the Sioux Falls area. However, in 2007, Espino was convicted of hiring illegal immigrants - paying them cash for their services in his restaurant - and was sentenced to four years probation, six-months house arrest and ordered to pay a $15,000 fine and perform 200 hours of community service over a two year period. It could have been a lot worse for Espino - his lawyer successfully argued that Espino had only hired the illegals to help them get on their feet as they worked to get citizenship, plus the fact that Espino contributed much to the Sioux Falls community (a point that even prosecutors acknowledged). Today, Espino helps other businesses when it comes to hiring practices and how to stay compliant with federal guidelines.
Espino recently opened a second location on Sioux Falls' west side - Inca Express - that has a smaller menu and more of a fast paced feel compared to the original Inca. He has also been thinking of putting a second Inca location on the east side of Sioux Falls.
The food fare at Inca is categorized as Chihuahuan-style. Chihuahuan region food is described as a melting pot of different cuisines picked up by immigrants to Mexico beginning in the 16th century. Not only do you find influences of Spanish food in Chihuahua, but you'll also find variances of French, Lebanese, Welsh and Italian foods. But most importantly to the Chihuahuan region are the Mennonites who immigrated to Mexico in the early 1920's, coming first from their lowland areas of Holland and Northern Germany, then to Canada before accepting an invitation from the Mexican government. Mennonite-raised beans, corn and chiles are now a staple for Mexican food and Mennonite cheese is considered the best of all the Mexican cheeses.
The dining area at Inca is divided into two areas - the more spacious and well lit main area (below left) that has natural colors on the walls and ceilings, with pastels for the booth seats and table tops - and a smaller area along the west side of the building with booths lined along windows. I was seated at one of those booths next to the window and given a menu.
The chips and salsa at Inca are very good. The chips are light and very thin, but not thin enough where they break under the weight of the thick and very tasty salsa. Espino bottles Inca's salsa and sells it at various grocery stores around Sioux Falls. He estimates that they sell about 1500 to 1600 jars of salsa each month.
I was really in the mood for fajitas, but I found a few other interesting items on Inca's expansive menu. They had a number of steak and beef entrees, as well as a large number of seafood offerings. One thing that I don't think I've ever seen on a menu at a Mexican restaurant are scallops. They had a dish called Scallops el Mojo de Ajo - garlic/olive oil/lime juice marinated scallops sauteed with garlic and butter with fresh mushrooms. It sounded pretty good. They also had Chile Colorado - chunks of slow cooked pork in a red chile sauce. And I almost got the Tacos al Carbon - marinated beef chunks that are grilled, then served in soft corn tortillas with chopped onions, tomatoes, cilantro and parmesan cheese. But I hadn't had fajitas for quite sometime and I decided to go with that. I also got a margarita to start out.
That was when the meal began to go bad.
The margarita was bad - one of the worst margaritas I've ever had. It was syrupy, much too sweet and I couldn't detect any tequila in it. It had one of the worst aftertastes, sort of like they needed to clean out the margarita machine. I drank just over half the margarita and waited for the waitress to come back so I could order a Dos Equis Amber.
The fajitas showed up, all sizzling and the onions and peppers were smelling good. There was a large plate of rice, refried beans and, interestingly, cole slaw, along with a small bowl of pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, lettuce and shredded cheese. It really looked promising.
The beef, however, was lifeless. It was overcooked and had almost no taste to it whatsoever. And there was a scarcity of beef on the fajita griddle. I had to pick through the mounds of cooked onions and peppers just to see if there was anymore hidden underneath. There really wasn't. While the guacamole and the veggies were fresh - and the beans and rice were good - I may as well just have gotten vegetarian fajitas. There was barely enough beef to put onto two of the flour shell tacos. And it really wasn't that good.
I was disappointed in my fajitas at Inca and I was very disappointed in my margarita. I can almost still taste that sweet, yet bitter taste on my tongue from that margarita mix. However, the service was good at Inca and I really enjoyed the chips and salsa. In hindsight, I probably should have gone with my gut instinct and gotten the Chile Colorado or the Tacos al Carbon. But my stomach was yelling for fajitas. They just weren't very good. I'm willing to give Inca another chance at some point, but for as little as I get back to Sioux Falls, it may be a long while before that happens.