I was calling on one of my dealers in the Twin Cities about a year ago and one of the salesmen asked me where I was heading next. I told him I had to go see my dealer up in St. Cloud. "St. Cloud?! Man, you have to stop at a place up there called Bravo Burritos," he told me. "That place is the best!" I never did try Bravo Burritos and earlier this year the same sales guy asked me if I'd been to Bravo Burritos yet. It just so happened that I would be going to St. Cloud later in the day and I made it a point this time to stop in and have lunch at Bravo Burritos.
Bill Ellenbecker and Helen Shay grew up in St. Cloud, went to St. Cloud State, eventually married and moved to San Francisco in the early 70's. They frequented a Mexican restaurant - El Faro - in the Mission District that specialized in healthy Mexican food known as Mission-style burritos that were bigger than most burritos and filled with beans and rice. The couple traveled extensively through Mexico during their time in San Francisco learning about Mexican foods and how to make a proper margarita.
After 13 years of living in San Francisco, the couple contemplated the rest of their lives and decided that their hometown of St. Cloud could benefit from a restaurant like El Faro and they moved back in 1984 to start their dream of owning their own Mexican restaurant.
At first, they were told by advisors that 9 out of every 10 restaurants failed within the first couple of years, and those that do make it 9 out of every 10 came from people whose families were already in the business. However, Bill Ellenbecker remembered something a teacher told him when he was going to St. Cloud State - when you find a niche and fill it, that's a great step forward toward being successful.
Pictured right - Bill and Helen Ellenbecker. Photo courtesy St. Cloud Times.
The Ellenbeckers opened Bravos Burritos Mexicatessen and Bar in downtown St. Cloud in April of 1985. The styled their menu similar to El Faro in San Francisco, even serving the burritos in aluminum foil like the restaurant in the Mission District did. They also came up with other traditional Mexican foods that were derived from cookbooks - some only in Spanish - the two had picked up during their travels to Mexico. Bravos Burritos were the first restaurant in the area to serve fajitas and to serve margaritas without the syrupy mix that most American Mexican restaurants served. The margaritas were made with fresh squeezed lime juice, Cointreau and Triple Sec with 100 percent blue agave tequila.
The biggest problem the Ellenbeckers faced was the fact that ingredients for authentic Mexican food were not readily available in the mid-80's in Central Minnesota. That meant multiple weekly trips to St. Paul to a Mexican food purveyor to haul back fresh items to make their authentic food.
After 8 years, the Ellenbeckers opened a larger location in a strip mall in the midtown area of St. Cloud near a couple malls and other eating establishments. Then in 1995, they opened a third location in Minneapolis along Hennepin Ave. The location in Minneapolis didn't have a kitchen which meant that the Ellenbeckers would have to make up the food, transport it to Minneapolis in a van and warm it all up once they got there.
After a few years of working 100 hour weeks looking after three locations, Bill Ellenbecker knew that he was getting burnt out. He ended up closing both the Minneapolis location and the original downtown St. Cloud location to focus on the midtown location in St. Cloud. And that's where I went to when I got into St. Cloud around 1:30 that particular afternoon. (see map)
Bravos Burritos is not big - it has a number of four-seater tables set in between a small bar and a row of two-seater booths along a pine wood wall. Mexican artwork adorns the wall making for lively visual surroundings.
The menu is located at the front counter where you order your food, just like at the original El Faro when it was open in San Francisco. In addition to Mission-style burritos, Bravos Burritos features tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, quesadillas and tostadas. Meat fillings for their food items include pork carnitas, shredded beef, chicken verde, and something called Bravo Chili, a hot combination of chunky beef and pork simmered in a housemade spicy chili sauce. Bravos Burritos is also known for their vegetarian items on the menu.
I wasn't all that hungry, but knew that I needed something to eat as I wouldn't be back in the Twin Cities until later in the evening. I ended up getting a pork verde enchilada. It wasn't all that big, but it was smothered in a green chile sauce and cheese, served with a bit of rice and garnished with shredded lettuce, salsa, sour cream and a single sliced jalapeño. Chips with refried beans also came with the enchilada prompting the question - Why? - in my head when it was set down in front of me.
The taste of the enchilada was very good. Along with a pint of Dos Equis Ambar that they had on tap, this was a very good Mexican lunch. The pork was tender, the green chile verde sauce had a bit of a bite, and the overall taste was outstanding. I couldn't really find fault with any bit of the meal I was served at Bravos Burritos.
I contacted the sales guy back at my dealer in Minneapolis and told him that I had just visited Bravos Burritos. He asked me what I thought and I told him that I thought the pork verde enchilada was outstanding and with the number of types of meat to choose from I knew that at some point I had to go back and try something else. Bringing a little bit of Mexico and a little bit of San Francisco to St. Cloud has turned out to be a winning combination for the Ellenbeckers and Bravos Burritos. It's no wonder they've made it 30 years and counting.