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The metallic hum of the corn grinder dominated the conversation inside the kitchen of the newest Nico's Tacos and Tequila Bar.

Heritage corn kernels, bloated from an extended bath in a lime mixture, were being pulverized and extruded into a smooth mixture that plopped without ceremony into a waiting pan. The river of creamy gold is a source of pride for co-owner Alejandro Victoria. He eagerly scooped his hand into a tub of the kernels, showing off the pale yellow riches of his homeland and Indigenous descendants. "I'm compelled to be a steward of my heritage," he said.

"It's a journey I feel like he's been on since the first time we went and visited his family's ranch in Michoacán," said Jenna Victoria, his wife and business partner. "The first time I was there some 20 years ago, we had tortillas made from this heirloom corn, hot off the comal with just a little butter and salt. Heaven."

The journey to the heart of this family's story also reflects the evolution of Twin Cities dining. It's almost hard to believe that the first place Minneapolis fell in love with this culinary duo was at an Italian restaurant in Uptown appropriately named for love — Amore Victoria.

All the salsas at Nico's are made on-site.
All the salsas at Nico's are made on-site.

Joy Summers, Star Tribune

From East L.A. to Wisconsin

Alejandro grew up in East L.A. in the 1990s, a challenging time to be a kid running loose on the streets. "My older brothers were co-partners at this Italian restaurant in Appleton, Wis.," he said. "My mother would send me off to work with them during the summers so I couldn't get into too much trouble."

He remembers one brother was content to let him work forever in the dish pits, but the other would call him up to the line when the restaurant was swamped. The young Alejandro was happy to drop the dishes and pick up a knife.

When he was a little older, a college-aged woman came in to inquire about a bartender job. His brother thought she was cute and with a little matchmaking, they hit it off. When they were married, Alejandro was introduced to the sister of his new sister-in-law — Jenna.

Jenna and Alejandro won't say that it was instant love, but it wasn't long before they were dating, married and bought a house in Minneapolis. With backgrounds in hospitality, they dreamed of opening their own place.

The spot they found was a recently closed Italian place on Lake Street and Irving Avenue in Uptown. After some negotiations, a deal was struck and they went to work remodeling and eventually opened Amore Victoria in 2006. True to the restaurant Alejandro was raised in, the menu would focus on Italian cuisine.

The couple also were expecting their first child. The two spent so much time at the restaurant that the baby was nearly born there. It was during a Saturday night service that Jenna called up to the kitchen from the downstairs office. "She said, 'I'm going to have this baby now.' And we were busy! I had to shut down the line and tell everyone we couldn't take any more tables for the night," said Alejandro. The two raced to the hospital, and just like that, the new restaurant owners were parents.

In 2012, Alejandro and Jenna Victoria were the owners of Amore Victoria. They had been helping collect donations and raise money for victims of a condo fire.
In 2012, Alejandro and Jenna Victoria were the owners of Amore Victoria. They had been helping collect donations and raise money for victims of a condo fire.

Star Tribune

Family inspiration

Two more kids showed up in quick succession, and the back office became a de facto nursery. The restaurant was a hit, becoming a neighborhood favorite for its creamy sauces, al dente pastas and rooftop patio.

But something kept tugging at Alejandro. At the time, the only restaurants he found making Mexican cuisine that spoke to him were the small immigrant-owned businesses along E. Lake Street. He was missing a taste of home that went beyond his mother's East L.A. kitchen, and into the country of his ancestors. And he wasn't the only one.

Tacos were the favorite and most acceptable food option to the Victorias' middle child, Nico. As Alejandro explored his cuisine, the family often found themselves eating out on Lake Street. "We'd end up going out to eat for 'Nicostacos,'" said Jenna.

When a small restaurant space in a converted house on Hennepin Avenue opened up, the couple decided to expand. What else could it be called except what they loved most? Nico's Tacos opened in the fall of 2013. "We also thought maybe this way we can save him from middle child syndrome," Alejandro said jokingly.

What began as a small and casual dip into Mexican cuisine serving fresh salsas, tacos and a few other platos ignited a passion in Alejandro. Soon, Amore wasn't where their attention was fully focused.

"At that point, I felt like Amore had become such a big operation for us," said Jenna. The two were pulled to follow where the Mexican restaurant would lead them, and quietly put out feelers about a possible sale. A regular customer was interested in getting into the business and bought the restaurant in 2016, changing the name to Amore Uptown. It closed in 2022.

The Victorias, meanwhile, turned their focus on the new venture.

"It was a fun process for me to witness Alejandro delve more into the culture and bringing in more from Michoacán," said Jenna.

With that passion and dreams of what could be, Nico's Tacos kept growing. Operations were getting bigger than the tiny kitchen could handle. Special offerings, like a Dia de los Muertos menu, not only allowed Alejandro to explore and share traditional foods from his family roots, but proved that Twin Cities diners were ready for more.

The second Nico's Tacos and Tequila Bar opened in St. Paul's St. Anthony Park neighborhood in 2019. The historic building had been the longtime home of another restaurant, Muffuletta, and needed work. But work was familiar to the Victorias.

Opening up the dining room and bathing the space in light paint transformed the room. A giant mural and large bar became the heart of the room, and the patio is still one of the best spots to spend a summer evening.

The expanded space meant more tacos, entrees and the opportunity to bring in heritage corn from Mexico and start the exacting nixtamalization process of combining the kernels with powdered limestone to break it down, and grind it into an earthy, flavorful masa base that's pressed into tortillas and used as the base for many of its dishes.

Inside the kitchen, varieties of heritage corn are soaked and processed into masa that serves as a base for many of its dishes.
Inside the kitchen, varieties of heritage corn are soaked and processed into masa that serves as a base for many of its dishes.

Joy Summers

A culinary story

The Victorias lived in south Minneapolis, and Alejandro would drop by Tinto Kitchen on Penn Avenue on occasion. He eventually struck up a friendship with its owner, Rebecca Illingworth Penichot.

Just months ago, she decided she wanted to relocate and sell the restaurant. It had just expanded and undergone remodeling; the footprint and large kitchen were too good an opportunity to pass up. "She called me up and said, 'Would you be interested in purchasing my restaurant?' " said Alejandro. "We kind of went back and forth with casual talks, until it turned serious."

The third location of Nico's Tacos opened in early 2024 and leans even further into the cuisine and culture of Michoacán, from fresh salsas and fresh masa to an extensive array of agave spirits.

"One of the big problems I had with Mexican restaurants back in the day is that they weren't making the salsa from scratch," Alejandro said. At Nico's, every salsa served is made on-site.

"In Mexico, the region I'm from, you take tomatoes and peppers and put them on the comal, which is like a flat griddle. And you let them caramelize. Then you use a molcajete made of stone and grind it together. It's so simple," he said.

"There are other things, too," added Jenna. "Like using agave nectar instead of simple syrup in the margaritas."

"We didn't want to reinvent the wheel," said Alejandro. "We wanted to show people what it should be. We wanted to bring the heritage. I want to cook for everybody the way I cook for Mexican people."

Jenna adds: "One thing he has said over and over through the years is 'When I'm cooking for someone, I'm sharing with them my story,'" Jenna added.

This new chapter is banking on the desire of Twin Cities diners to dive deeper into regional-specific Mexican fare. And so far, they are showing up in force.

It may seem like a long way from an Italian restaurant in Wisconsin, but the family ties remain. The Victorias' nephews Andres and Isidro Victoria — the grown children from the couple that drew these two together — have joined the fold and now are part owners of Nico's Tacos and Tequila Bar.

The newest location of Nico's Tacos and Tequila Bar has an expanded kitchen and dining room, including a cozy fireplace inside the dining room.
The newest location of Nico's Tacos and Tequila Bar has an expanded kitchen and dining room, including a cozy fireplace inside the dining room.

Joy Summers

Nico's Tacos and Tequila Bar

Uptown: 2516 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-345-7688, Open Mon.-Thu. 4-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.- 9:30 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

St. Paul: 2260 Como Av., St. Paul, 651-450-8848. Open Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.

New location: 4959 Penn Av. S., Mpls., 612-216-1188. Open Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.