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If La Chaya Bistro accomplished nothing else beyond ridding the south Minneapolis streetscape of a tattered KFC outlet, it would be all right in my book.
Co-owners Juan Juarez Garcia and Dave Kopfmann weren't the first team to take a crack at transforming this former Extra Crispy outpost -- they were preceded by a short-lived coffeehouse venture -- but the pair seemed to do the lion's share of the dirty work, converting a shlocky bit of urban blight into an eye-catcher, due in no small part to Kopfmann's landscape-designer chops. It's also a whole new ballgame inside, with a busy semi-open kitchen overlooking a mustard-tinted dining room smartly trimmed in rough-sawn pine. Seriously, someone needs to hand these two a well-deserved urban renewal award.
I also appreciate what Garcia, the restaurant's culinary force, isn't doing. He's not going the standard-issue neighborhood cafe route (each time I am faced with yet another twist on classic American comfort food, I am nudged one step closer to early retirement). Instead, he's borrowing from his native Mexico -- and from Italy, where he worked -- and devising a menu that wisely doesn't fuse the two cultures but pairs them side by side. It's a welcome change of pace, and, more often than not, it works.
Soups are a strong suit
The two daily soups rank at the top of the kitchen's strong suits. One week the choices were a spirited gazpacho and a creamy avocado topped with cool, clean bits of crab mixed with fiery peppers; both were fantastic. Another week featured a vibrant, broth-based tomato with peppery accents and a fragrant cream of cilantro garnished with grilled shrimp. Paired with a salad (another high point by the way, particularly a satisfying beet-avocado-green bean number), they could easily make for a fine late-summer meal.
Appetizers are more uneven. On the down side there is a plate of tough, flavorless, thinly sliced beef with a lifeless garlic sauce. I wasn't impressed by the soggy grilled vegetables or the bland mushrooms paired with grilled bread. But there's a fun street-food thing going on -- lightly battered and fried calamari, and skewered bits of fried fish with a zippy cilantro sauce -- and I appreciate how the kitchen refrains from the temptation to over-adorn a generous plate of thinly sliced raw beef, allowing the meat's rich flavor and texture to take center stage.
I wish the plate-sized pizzas were better. The crusts -- skinny, sturdy, nicely charred -- were on the right track, but the toppings were often surprisingly bland. Not what I expected with an average price of $14. Ditto the house-made pastas. The ideas sounded promising, but with the exception of a rustic wild mushroom-penne combination, the final results seemed tame and underseasoned. A disappointment.
There are six entrees, and they come with a side of sticker shock. A filet and a rib-eye hover in the $30 range -- a price so far outside the neighborhood cafe comfort zone that it's an exurb -- but they're terrific, ringing with a big, beefy flavor and dead-on accompaniments. Down in the mid-$20s there's a swell pepper-studded slab of halibut topped with a refreshing mango salsa (the less said about the other and far drearier halibut preparation, the better) and so-so grilled shrimp livened with, yes, that ubiquitous cilantro pesto. The relative bargain of the bunch is a juicy, crackly-skinned piece of grilled chicken paired with mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus, which tops out at $16.50.
Daily specials were inspired and often affordably priced. One day I lucked into a dazzling herb-flecked crab salad, the ideal response to the steamy August evening, and on another I was deeply pleased by lovingly seared scallops that were perfectly sweet and succulent. Desserts follow the you've-had-this-before rule: a standard-issue flan, a similarly familiar fruit crisp and an extra-fudgy flourless chocolate cake. The lovely ice creams and sorbets come courtesy of Sonny's.
Brunch was delicious
My favorite meal was brunch. Not just because we were starving and the food arrived in a flash. It was also delicious: marvelous house-made corn tortillas covered with fried eggs, flavorful refried beans and a blazing salsa; gently poached eggs and thick slices of avocado on toasted English muffins, eggs Benedict-style, finished with a teasingly spicy salsa verde; well-stuffed quesadillas; shrimp tacos made with those excellent tortillas; fresh-squeezed juices, and nicely baked scones. Best of all, everything but the tacos was under $10. What's not to like?
It made me wonder. With the economy heading south faster than a Sun Country vacation getaway, is it prudent for a neighborhood restaurant to be charging white-tablecloth prices? My other question: Could Kopfmann and Garcia take a gander at a vacant Burger King near my house? I'm certain they could do great things with it.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757