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Sparks closes in Bryn Mawr neighborhood; new restaurant with Ecuadorean fare moving in

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.

Burger Friday: A butter burger in southwest Minneapolis that puts Culver's to shame

The burger: Because he's a die-hard fan of the Culver’s ButterBurger, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where chef Asher Miller got his inspiration for the burger at Book Club, his appealing new southwest Minneapolis restaurant.

Here’s how it works: a few seconds before they’re pulled off the griddle, each patty gets what Miller characterizes as a “big chunk” of a butter that’s infused with lemon, tarragon, parsley and chives. As the butter melts, those flavors sink into the patty, enhancing its flavor and texture profiles. It’s true: butter really does improve everything it touches.

The restaurant replaced the former Cafe Maude. “And they had a great system for grinding beef for their burger,” said Miller. “When I saw that I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to keep that tradition alive?’”

This much he knew: the formula would include grass-fed beef. After much research and experimentation, he landed on a brisket-shoulder clod blend from Peterson Craftsman Meats.

“Their beef comes in fresh, not frozen, and there seemed to be a more consistent meat/fat ratio in their brisket,” he said. For those into numbers, Miller said that the brisket/clod ratio is roughly 70/30, and the overall meat/fat ratio chimes in around 80/20.

Miller wanted to perk up the beef’s flavor, so he folds in fresh thyme and garlic. The thick, wide patties tip the scales at 6 ounces, and they’re seasoned with salt and pepper before hitting the flat top grill.

“We started by using the wood-fired grill, but we recently switched to the griddle,” said Miller. “I prefer the griddle, because you can get a little crust on the patty.”

I requested medium rare, and the kitchen hit that mark, precisely, a gently charred, slightly crisped-up exterior that yielded a pink bordering-on-crimson interior, with lots of juices, and a rich, yes, buttery finish.

The bun? Miller said he and his crew tasted an “ungodly” number of potential buns until landing upon the winner, baked at Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery in Bloomington.

“Its texture and size really works for us, and I also like it for its longevity,” he said.

Finishing touches are chosen to align with Miller’s desire to layer in flavor whenever possible. Most notable is a healthy splash of tarragon-infused mustard. Pickles provide crunch and a sharp (and much-needed) palate-cleanser. Oh, and there’s a reason why shredded iceberg lettuce and tomato -- both are enhanced by a bit of flavor-awakening salt and pepper -- are placed under the patty.

“With a butter burger, if you’d put them on top of the patty, with the butter melting down on it, they would get muddled,” he said.

One of this burger’s most noticeable characteristics is what it doesn’t have. Namely, cheese (frankly, with all that butter, the lack of American, Swiss or other dairy case staple is almost welcome), a somewhat radical departure in the Cheeseburger Era in which we find ourselves.

“There’s this trend around town, with the smashed patty and American cheese,” said Miller. “It was a bit risky, but I wanted to be different.”

Done, and done. This is definitely one case where “different” isn’t passive-aggressive Minnesota-speak for “icky.” Instead, it’s synonymous with “great.”

Price: $13.

Fries: Not included (they’re an additional $2). Instead, the burger is served with a handful of crispy house-made potato chips.

Where he burgers: “I think burgers are the perfect food,” said Miller with a laugh. “A couple of summers ago, I had a cheeseburger every day, I suppose that wasn’t the healthiest. I love Culver’s. It’s a guilty pleasure. I get the single patty, with a single slice of cheese. It’s the perfect ratio of bread to meat, but you have to order two of them. If you get a double patty, the ratio gets thrown off. I’m also excited about getting a Shake Shack close to Southdale, because that’s close to where we live. I don’t go to the Mall of America often, but if I do, I get a burger at Shake Shack.”

Address book: 5411 Penn Av. S., Mpls., 612-822-5411. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fri., 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sat. and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sun. Yes, the burger is served during weekend brunch. 

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

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