After a string of sold-out pop-ups serving their take on Arizona street food, El Norte Kitchen went viral with an off-menu foodie thirst trap at one of their pop-ups: a Concha Burger, housed in the Mexican sweet bread with a crunchy, crumbly, sweet, brightly colored topping that’s striped like a seashell.
“We made 25 of these, and they were gone in like 10, 15 minutes,” says Ben Allen, chef and owner of El Norte. “Then Thrillist hit us up, we did their video, and it went over to, like, a million views in its first night.”
As of right now, the seven-month-old video has six million views. Not a bad look for a pop-up restaurant with no space of its own and less than a dozen events under its belt.
Allen grew up in St. Paul and moved to Tucson, Arizona at 19 years old, having freshly dropped out of culinary school. While there, he fell hard for Sonoran-style carne asada burritos.
"Right below Arizona [in Mexico] is Sonora,” Allen explains, “and that whole region around there is just cattle rancher kind of food: mesquite grilled [steak] and flour tortillas. I’ve never had Mexican food like that… You get a burrito that’s just beans, cabbage, and carne asada. In every restaurant you go down there, there's one section of the kitchen where they just have a couple ladies just making tortillas," he claps his hands a few times to demonstrate the over-under, left-right motion, "nonstop, man, nonstop. I just fell in love with that—simple ingredients, just really well-executed."
Allen moved back to Minnesota after two years in Arizona and discovered a total lack of Sonoran-style burritos here. While cooking his way around a not-too-shabby list of Twin Cities restaurants—including shuttered gastronomic playground Heirloom and a stint as executive chef at W.A. Frost—Allen started El Norte Kitchen with his wife, Tricia, and brother, Elijah, to bring the tastes of Tucson to Minnesota.
The name “El Norte” is a nod to the trio’s desire to bring the food of northern Mexico to the great north of Minnesota. They held their first official pop-up in June 2018, and haven’t slowed down since.
“We get bombarded at our pop-ups, which is a good thing,” Allen beams. “But if you’re not there within two hours of when we open we could be sold out. I don’t want to always be running out of stuff. Every pop-up you’re prepping from zero. We cranked out 150 orders in two hours, and we’re done. I did 80 pounds of carne asada. Every single time, I’m adding 20, 30 pounds of carne asada, and they just keep coming! It’s a good problem to have.”
When he began experimenting with concha sandwiches, Allen was unaware of the Concha Burger by chef brothers Bobby and Adrian Cruz at McAllen, Texas’ Orchard Lounge, which won the James Beard Blended Burger project in 2016. His inspiration came from chef Rosio Sanchez, a Noma alum with a taqueria in Copenhagen, Denmark, whose “Dirty Concha” creations used pulled pork that Allen found too wet for the soft concha bun. “We thought, ‘Let’s try a burger,’” Allen says. “It’s Minnesota, everyone’s doing burgers.”
They toast a split concha on the griddle and smash the hell out of a single, hefty well-seasoned beef patty before topping it with a generous slice of homemade pepper jack cheese. “We went and got some sodium citrate, learned the melty cheese method,” Allen says, referencing the unsatisfactory texture your standard piece of cheese gets when melted. They top it with pickled red onions for acid, julienned jalapeños for heat, and crispy bacon for smokiness and crunch. The whole thing leans unsurprisingly sweet for a burger, but it’s reined in by the more savory ingredients inside—a testament to Allen’s attention to detail and his ability to execute flawlessly.
They didn’t expect the traction the Concha Burger would experience on Instagram, leading to the viral Thrillist video, and an article on Latin culture website Mitú, which erroneously identified the Allen brothers as Latinx.
“I never spoke with that author—not once,” Allen says. “They never reached out before they published it. It was a bunch of stuff from articles and she saw a couple brown guys and assumed. My dad’s from Jamaica. I’m not trying to appropriate someone else’s culture. I’m here curating and creating the kind of… food that I love from different states, different regions, and bundling it up with my own execution.”
It’s a thin line, trying to honor cuisines while not claiming authenticity and absolutely not trying to disrespect the cultures they come from. “[The author] actually just messaged me yesterday and was like, ‘Can I fix this?’ I was like, ‘Just please take it down.’” (It’s still up as of press time.)
While El Norte’s growing following couldn’t get enough of their burritos, hand-cut fries, and fried cheese tacos, they just kept asking for Concha Burgers. “These pop-ups in January are literally for the people who wanted a Concha Burger, who kept blowing us up on social media. It just doesn’t really fit what we’re doing. But this may be the end of the Concha Burger."
El Norte is holding a final opportunity to sample their Concha Burger at a pop-up Monday, January 27. It’s ticketed, “so there’s no chaos or hurt feelings,” Allen says. “And [then we can] focus more on the food that we really want to serve, and we personally really want to eat more often.”
While nothing's official at this point, they have a breakfast taco pop-up planned for February and a coursed Tucson tasting menu in the works. When it gets warmer, they can’t wait to fire up a wood grill and get the carne asada cooking again. An increasingly shorter-term goal is to find an official avenue for El Norte—be it brick-and-mortar or a food truck—and go all-in full time on Southwestern comfort food.
"I don’t want to be known as a Concha Burger guy,” Allen says. “I’m a burrito man. Burritos are my thing. Tacos are my wife’s thing. My brother, he likes everything. January 27th, as of right now... that’s the last Concha Burger.”
The Concha Burger is a ticketed dinner at Octo Fish Bar, and comes with one burger, hand-cut fries, one tallboy beer of your choice, and a churro for dessert. There are seatings at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., and ticket sales close this Thursday, January 23.