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Longtime CARAG Restaurant Suddenly Closes

Chef blamed disputes with landlord.

Long a familiar and delicious presence on the 3400 block of Lyndale Avenue South, the El Meson Bistro unexpectedly closed its doors on Tuesday morning. 

"I write this with a heavy heart. Sadly, we have made the very difficult decsion to close our doors at El Meson," read a note posted on the restaurant's website. "We appreciate all of your support over the years and hope to see you at Cafe Ena."

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Chef Hector Ruiz and restauranteur Erin Ungerman bought the CARAG staple in 2003, and were routinely praised by local foodies for their Spanish- and Carribean-influenced food. In an interview with Patch, Ruiz said the move was a "business decision," but would not impact either couple's other restaurant at the corner of 46th Street and Grand Avenue South, Cafe Ena. Ruiz's independent project at the corner of 38th Street and Grand Avenue South, Rincon 38, would likewise be unaffected, he said.

Ruiz said disputes with the landlord made operating the restaurant difficult.

“The less headaches I have in my life, the better," he said. "I’d like to concentrate on better things.”

Ruiz said he and Ungerman had been fighting with landlord Gail Lindgren "up and down" for several years about necessary improvements to the building, including replacing the roof and about damage a third tennant had caused to the restaurant's air conditioning systems this summer.

Lindgren offered a different version of the story to Patch, however. The owner of Quality Paint and Autobody said that the restaurant's business took a terrible hit during the 2008 financial crisis, and she had let them switch over to a month-to-month lease instead of renewing their previous long-term lease, so El Meson's owners wouldn't have to worry about paying a multi-year lease if their business went under. 

"They had difficulties and we let them stay without renewing the lease, so they could hope to make it," she said. "But that went on and on and we couldn't get them to sign a lease."

Lindren said she refused to make major improvements on the building until a lease was signed, but said that many of the smaller improvements Ruiz and Ungerman had asked for were completed.

Ruiz told Patch he and Ungerman had been contemplating closing El Meson for some time, but were waiting until Rincon 38 opened. Ruiz said he is waiting for the city to approve his permit application for the tapas bar.

For now, Ruiz said he will be concentrating his efforts on Rincon 38 and on Cafe Ena, but would be looking to reopen El Meson elsewhere in the Twin Cities in the future. Already, he said, "a couple of people" have made inquiries about hosting the restaurant.

What was your favorite thing about El Meson? Share your memories in the comments section below!

CHDaggett October 10, 2012 at 01:43 AM
What was there NOT to love about El Meson! This is so sad. I used to work for a man who had travelled all over the world and the paella [sp?] at El Meson was the ONLY place he'd eat it locally. Heck - maybe they could move into the space Butter just left?? Suppose the kitchen is way too small though for the miracles they work with food. Best of luck to them!
James Sanna (Editor) October 10, 2012 at 03:16 AM
That story makes me wish I'd made time to eat there! It was always next on my list of places to try...
Bruce Wadman October 10, 2012 at 04:59 PM
How about moving to Java Jack's location??
Leah October 11, 2012 at 01:16 AM
Yeah, this is a loss. Cafe Enya is just not as good as El Meson, in my opinion. I hope that Rincon 38 does well and I look forward to its opening.

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