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NE. Mpls. getting 2 new Mexican restaurants — one casual, the other refined

Although the construction clutter might suggest otherwise, one of the year’s most exciting new restaurant projects is nearing completion at the corner of 15th and Quincy in northeast Minneapolis.

Two restaurants, actually: Centro, and Popol Vuh. Both are the work of owner Jami Olson and chef Jose Alarcon, a pair of Lyn 65 vets.

Centro first, where the menu emphasizes tacos and other Mexican street-food fare. Think cured cactus-mushroom-kale tacos with a peanut sauce, chorizo-potato tacos with a roasted salsa verde, braised beef- cheeks tacos with salsa roja, braised lamb tacos with a fresh tomato salsa and guajillo-marinated chicken tacos with radishes and pickled onions, all in the $3-to-$4 range. Centro will also feature a raw bar (oysters, ceviches and aguachiles) and Alarcon will also serve borrachos (beans simmered in beer), guacamole, chips and salsa and other snacks, all in the $10-and-under range. Fresh paletas, too, those refreshing frozen fruits pops, in both kid-friendly and grown-up (translation: alcohol) versions.

The bar will focus on agave-based spirits (“It’s so easy to get lost in that world,” said Olson), including a tequila-mezcal-avila-bacanora flight ($18). Cocktails on tap ($10) include a guava-mezcal-guava kambucha slushy, a classic margarita and a gin-rosé sangria. By-the-glass wines (from Spain, France and Argentina) land in the $7-to-$9 range.The plan is for Centro to operate from 11 am. to midnight, Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

The light-filled space (90 seats inside, another 34 on the patio) features a showy open kitchen, a four-sided bar, a dining area, a takeout counter and a delivery service to neighboring Indeed Brewing Co.

“In this new minimum wage era, we can’t do two full-service restaurants,” said Olson. “Centro will enable us to do Popol Vuh.”

A corridor connects the two restaurants, a physical connection between Centro’s neighborhood-hangout energy and the more intimate Popol Vuh.

“The experience at Popol Vuh is going to be more refined, but it’s not going to be fine-dining,” she said. “We want to give people a different experience with Mexican cuisine.”

Popol Vuh’s centerpiece, a nine-foot hearth, doubles as Alarcon’s primary cooking tool. Wood-fired cooking is a major Twin Cities dining trend (see Young Joni, and the upcoming In Bloom in St. Paul), but to Alarcon, a native of southern Mexico, it’s second nature.

“I grew up in a bakery family,” he said. “My grandpa and my father, they just used wood. They never used a thermometer, you just get a feeling of the heat, and you adapt to the circumstances. Plus, I love the smell, and the crackling sound. It reminds me of the places where I grew up. I’m very excited about this.”

(That's Alarcon, above, in the Popol Vuh dining room, pre-renovation, in a Star Tribune file photo)

His dinner-only menu will draw from a wide range of Mayan traditions (and will likely instigate, in a good way, countless tableside Google searches for information on little-known ingredients), showcasing rack of lamb with a goat mole, red snapper with a pineapple pico de gallo, roast chicken with a guajillo chile sauce, a version of the sweet corn salad that’s an off-the-cob version of elotes, creamy rice with mushrooms and a poached egg and a cactus-avocado-radish salad.

Cozy Popol Vuh will have 66-seats, including a nine-seat chef’s counter that’s a few steps away from that oak- and cherry-burning stove. A private dining room will seat 15.

The structure, a century-old adhesives factory, in no way resembled a restaurant when Olson bought the place. Shea Design of Minneapolis has left the interior as raw as possible, contrasting exposed brick, concrete, timbers and steel with imported vintage finishing touches. The most memorable? Salvaged interior doors of the they-don’t-make-them-like-this-any-more variety, complete with transom windows.

(That's a before/after compare/contrast set of images, above; the before was taken 16 months ago, and the after is from mid-June).

Olson has commissioned several northeast Minneapolis artists to create site-specific works for the two restaurants. Cross-stitchers Wone Vang and Youa Vang have crafted a colorful 10-foot (“Their work is usually really small, but this is the biggest that they’ve ever done in their lives,” she said with a laugh) yarn artwork. Terra cotta pots by Mike Smieja will hang from the ceiling of the corridor connecting the two restaurants. And Charlene Weeks is currently creating an exterior, rabbit-themed mural on the restaurant’s patio.

The property also contains an Airbnb overnight rental.

“We’ll run the food and beverage for that,” said Olson.

As for the restaurants’ names, “Centro is the center of town, where people gather,” said Alarcon. And Popol Vuh is a nod to a seminal book on the Mayan creation legend.

“I was 10 years old when I read it,” said Alarcon. “It always stuck in my head, and I thought, ‘Maybe when I open my restaurant, that’s going to be the name.’”

Centro should open by the end of June, and Popol Vuh will follow in a month. If the opening seems as if it has taken forever — imagine how Olson and Alarcon feel — it has; the slow-moving project, announced more than a year ago, was delayed by financing and construction issues.

“After this, the next one is going to be a piece of cake,” said Olson.

Yes, a “next one.”

“This project is going to lead to so much more,” she said. “But the lessons that we’ve learned, and the team that we’ve created, are priceless.”

The 5 best Twin Cities burgers of the year ... so far

To be clear, this isn’t one of those best-burgers-in-the-Twin Cities compilations (find that here). Instead, Burger Friday – which places a weekly spotlight on a gotta-have burger – is marking the year’s midpoint by revisiting the five burgers that made the most favorable impressions so far in 2018. They’re listed here in no particular order (translation: there’s no hidden agenda in the sequence), just know that they’re all worth seeking out. And then some.

Monello (pictured above)Not content to already produce one of the Twin Cities most remarkable burgers, chef Mike DeCamp is at it again. This time, DeCamp has borrowed elements of the popular burger he serves at Constantine, then adds a few uncomplicated twists, including a second patty. Say hello to the “Dirty Double.” 

Those two thin, small-ish patties will never be described as "bruisers," but they pretty much embody all that is good about the word "decadence," at least from a burger standpoint. DeCamp starts with the same over-the-top chuck-brisket-butter formula (the ratio is six parts beef to four parts Minnesota-made Hope Creamery butter) that he uses for his Constantine burger. Then, because that's not enough, he incorporates bacon to the grind.

Next up: DeCamp lavishes plenty of soft, sweetly caramelized onions over the patties.

“I think beef and onions is a great combination, one that’s hard to top,” he said. “My favorite burger in the Twin Cities is at Lions Tap, and in my mind, this burger is a little similar to what they do there. They do griddled onions, although to be honest, they never have enough.”

DeCamp buys the sesame seed-topped buns at Cub. I know: Cub. And this is where this hamburger-bun snob learned a major lesson: one of the Twin Cities’ top chefs shops at Cub (“Chefs — They’re just like us!” would be the Us Weekly headline), then applies his know-how to flip a perfectly serviceable supermarket product into an occasion. The secret? Butter (and plenty of it, of course), and heat. Warming the bun softens it (and subtly enhances its yeasty flavor), and when all that butter comes in contact with the stove’s heat, it transforms the bun’s inner flat surfaces, giving them a elicate and delectable toastiness.  Follow this practice at home, folks. Your burgers will improve, without question.

DeCamp also doesn’t skimp on the cheese. Final touches include a layer of crunchy, tangy pickles —along with a chopped pickle relish — tucked under the bottom patty.

“It’s just all the familiar flavors, you know what I mean?” said DeCamp. Totally.

Price: $14.

Address book: 1115 2nd Av. S., Mpls., 612-353-6207. Patio open 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The “Dirty Double” burger is also available at Constantine (located on the lower level), which opens daily at 5 p.m.

Shantytown Bar & GrillTo my everlasting regret, I had been stupidly unaware of this dive bar's existence until Burger Friday reader Kim Whalen of Lakeville recommended it. Thanks, Kim.

“It’s Bloomington’s little secret,” said co-owner Peter Taykalo. “It’s such a small place that, if you drive by and blink, you’ll miss it.”

Nothing about the modest building's exterior indicates that it's the purveyor of a classic – the argument could be made for standard-setting– dive bar burger, sold at a barely-more-than-Five Guys price.

The third-pound, free-form patties (“It’s angus, always fresh, never frozen,” said Taykalo) are seared on a well-worn flattop grill until the beef skirts past a no-nonsense medium, allowing tasty bits of sizzled char to form on the outer edges.

The bun – a soft-yet-sturdy specimen that's baked at the nearby Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery – gets brushed in butter before getting a dark, crispy toast on the grill. Cheese? It’s salty, gooey American, although Cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella and pepper Jack are also available. The sole garnish is a standard-issue pickle spear. 

That’s it, just the three basic, well-handled burger food groups: beef, cheese and buttered-up bun. No pretense, no complications. Exactly what a dive bar cheeseburger should be.

Price: $6.25 for a basic burger, $6.50 for a cheeseburger (pictured, above), $7.25 for a bacon-cheeseburger and up to $8.50 for a specialty burger. Fries included.

Address book: 8512 Pillsbury Av. S., Bloomington, 952-881-7223. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday.

Nolo's Kitchen & Bar: There are several reasons why chef Peter Hoff adheres to the diner-style, double-patty format for his gotta-have cheeseburger.

“Two patties means more surface for caramelization, more of that beefy, beefy flavor,” he said. “And in my opinion, when you get those 6- and 7-ounce patties, they’re harder to eat. They’re a real commitment, managing those things. You can’t keep picking them up and putting them down, you have to go head-first into them.”

Like many other first-rate Twin Cites burgers, this one wisely relies upon ground beef from Peterson Craftsman Meats in Osceola, Wis.

“It’s what Andy [Peterson] calls his ‘Chuckwagon’ blend,” said Hoff. “It’s really rich, probably close to a 70/30 [meat/fat] ratio, nice and juicy. That higher fat ratio keeps them from drying out. And, I like supporting Andy, it’s great to know that they’re just an hour or so away.”

The golden, challah-style bun – soft, with a subtly sweet after-bite, its interior crisply toasted -- plays a key role in this burger’s success. It’s baked at Turtle Bread Co.

The cheese? Two semi-melted slices of American. As for the umami-boosting, Thousand Island-like sauce, it’s Hoff’s homage to his beloved In-N-Out Burger, his burger go-to when he was living in California. 

“I’ll just blatantly call myself a rip-off artist,” Hoff said with a laugh. “The In-N-Out Double-Double is the best burger there is, and this sauce is a riff on that. We slather it on everything here.”

Given this attention to detail, it should come as no surprise to learn that Hoff sells a lot of burgers.

“A ton,” he said. “In a given week, we’ll sell a couple of hundred.”

Price: $15, fries included.

Address book: 511 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-800-6033. Open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to midnight Friday, 8 a.m. to midnight Saturday and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Burger available at lunch, dinner and weekend brunch.

Lowry Hill Meats: Yes, this is the burger that I declared the best I’d tasted in 2016, the year that butcher/owner Erik Sather introduced it into his weekly specials rotation. (Find my original Burger Friday entry here). And yes, it continues to reside in the upper echelons of the Twin Cities burger pantheon. I’m including it in this mid-year roundup because Sather used the Super Bowl as an opportunity to expand the burger from its Wednesday-only schedule into an available-daily commodity. The early Februrary test run was so successful that Sather made the experiment a permanent gig. 

The version that Sather is serving closely follows the same format as the burger I first raved about in 2016: deeply flavorful quarter-pound patties made with ground beef sourced from single steers. Other components include house-made American cheese, tangy house-made pickles and caramelized onions.

Rather than import buns from elsewhere, Sather taps the considerable skill set of colleague Gabe Carlson, who bakes a brioche-style bun with a butcher shop twist: instead of milk, this soft, golden beauty is fortified with fat from the shop’s hogs. They're fantastic. As is this burger.

Price: $10. Make it a double for $13. Add an egg for a buck.

Address book: 1934 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-999-4200. Burger is available during the shop’s hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends. There's a small (free) parking lot; enter on Colfax Av.

Simply Steve's: Owner Steve Ramlow has always placed a burger — make that, burgers— at the forefront of the menu at his eight-year-old food truck.

“Personally, I just like them,” he said. For his popular California burger, the formula is, yes, simple: A nicely fatty beef that’s fresh, never frozen, well-seasoned and cooked on the flat top grill in its own considerable juices. A gooey slice of American cheese injects another jolt of saltiness.

Onions are fried in butter, their sweetness accentuated by the grill’s heat, with the butter laying on another layer of decadence. Butter also plays a role with the bun, which gets a generous swipe of the stuff before it’s toasted on the grill. By the way, that bun? It’s a doozy, a brioche-like beauty that comes from the ovens at Franklin Street Bakery.

“It’s just so soft and luxurious,” said Ramlow. “It melts in your mouth.”

Indeed. It’s also larger than the basic-issue burger bun, a two-handed whopper that knocks the essential bread-to-beef ratio slightly off kilter. Still, with a bun this good, who cares?

Ramlow isn’t shy when it comes to laying on all the appropriate California-style embellishments. A juicy tomato slice. Crunchy chopped lettuce. Vinegar-laced dill pickle chips. Plenty of mayo. The combination has endured as a burger classic for a reason; it works. No fancy bells-and-whistles, just honest-to-goodness burger deliciousness. Which certainly resides well within the Simply half of the Simply Steve’s brand.

Price: $10.

Address book: Track the truck’s whereabouts on Twitter and Facebook.

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