After nearly six years of feeding the Bryn Mawr neighborhood, Sparks (230 S. Cedar Lake Road, Mpls.) quietly closed its doors last week.

But the cozy space won’t stay dark for long. Spouses Juan Yunga and Ann Carlson-Yunga are working hard to open La Mesa by Feb. 1.

“We’re opening a neighborhood bistro with Latin roots,” said Carlson-Yunga. “Our hope is to be a really great neighborhood spot that also serves a few dishes not just from Ecuador but across South America, to highlight the beauty and culture of that cuisine.”

The plan is to retain the kitchen’s sole cooking device, a wood-burning oven.

“At first we thought, ‘That’s going to be a challenge, because it’s a new piece of equipment to master,’” said Carlson-Yunga. “But it’s such a neat, almost artistic form of cooking, and once you develop a skill for it, it’s a wonderful piece of equipment.”

Menus haven’t been entirely fixed, but pizza, a popular Sparks staple, will definitely make the cut.

“We’ll have a few Ecuadorean items as well,” said Carlson-Yunga. “We’re still working out those details, because we have to gauge what works best with the oven.”

Along with beer and wine, one for-sure beverage will be horchata lojana.

“It’s not the cinnamon milk from Mexico,” said Carlson-Yunga. “It’s a wonderful floral tea that’s served in the Andes. You go to the market, you buy a bouquet of flowers, and you take a bit of each of the flowers and make this herbal tea, with lemon and sugar. It’s bright red – that’s from the amaranth flowers – and it’s so refreshing, and the process of making it is so beautiful.”

The couple lives in the Bryn Mawr, not far from the restaurant.

“We looked for spaces all over southwest Minneapolis, so we’re happy to have landed in our own neighborhood,” said Carlson-Yunga. “After all that looking, you begin to wonder about the eventual outcome. But once we got this place we knew that it was meant to be.”

She’s a Minnesota native, he’s originally from Ecuador. This is their first venture as restaurateurs, but they’re hardly new to the industry. Yunga is a 20-year Nicollet Island Inn vet. Carlson-Yunga is an architect (she specializes in residential design for Tea2 in Minneapolis) but spent time cooking at the former Cafe Brenda and the Nicollet Island Inn. 

They met at the Inn.

“I was the evening saute cook, and Juan was cooking at lunch,” said Carlson. “It’s emotional for Juan to leave, because he has had so many good years there, and has met so many great people. But at some point you have to move on to the next phase. He’s thankful for the experience and ready to take that step.” She’ll be involved in La Mesa but will continue her architecture practice.

A note to Sparks fans: owner Amor Hantous continues to operate his Rinata in Uptown.

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