My favorite perch at Popol Vuh, the pulse-quickening Mexican restaurant in northeast Minneapolis, is in such proximity to the kitchen’s wood-burning hearth that my cheeks grew rosy from the heat radiating off those glowing oak embers. Who could ask for a more appealing warm-up on a frigid December night?
It’s also a front-and-center seat for watching chef/co-owner José Alarcon and chef de cuisine Jason Sawicki as they fashion a frequently remarkable array of refined, contemporary dishes using an ancient cooking method.
As the song goes, everything old is new again, and the ordinary is frequently elevated to extraordinary. Beef short ribs are braised with a pile-on of aromatics, then braised again in a chile-forward mole that hums with sesame and cinnamon. The mole forms a kind of glaze, and the meat, ridiculously tender and deeply flavorful, yields at the slightest pressure from a fork. The results are sublime.
Or hanger steak, which takes on transformative dimensions after being marinated in jalapeños, serranos and cilantro stems before allowing that intensely hot grill to work its magic.
Ditto the pork chop. Imagine the most pristine pork you’ve ever encountered — it’s raised, with obvious tender loving care, on a Wisconsin family farm — somehow improved upon with a chipotle-powered brine, and that wood-fueled stove.
The attention to detail is everywhere. Case in point: the smoky moles are marvels of complexity and technical acumen, and Alarcon finds delicious inspiration in street food from his native Mexico.
In his hands, the staple that is raw jicama (aka “Mexican turnip”) doused in lime juice and chile powder becomes a revelation, cutting the root vegetable into bucatini-like ribbons and adding raw beets for color. Orange juice, tangy goat cheese, crunchy toasted pumpkin seeds and cool mint are the just-right finishing flourishes, a combination that’s a bracingly refreshing juxtaposition to all of that hearty hearth cooking.
Even better, if that’s possible, is his twist on sweet potatoes. In Mexico, they’d most likely be pulled from a cart-mounted steamer, but in Minneapolis, Alarcon calls upon the fierce heat — and flavor-boosting smoke — of burning oak to magnify the tuber’s sweet earthiness while somehow reducing its pesky starchiness. Skipping the usual dulce de leche finish, Alarcon adds a tangy crema infused with epazote — a pungent Mexican herb — and pops of honey and lemon zest. Don’t miss it.
Two in one
Dinner-only Popol Vuh has a casual counterpart. It’s called Centro, and it’s the kind of well polished taqueria that would brighten any neighborhood; it certainly sparkles in this brewery- centric quadrant of the city.
Both were originally nurtured by forces at Richfield’s adventurous Lyn 65, proof positive that good restaurants are often fertile launchpads for more good restaurants.
Alarcon relies upon tortillas from a south Minneapolis bakery for the tacos at Centro — the volume is too great for an in-house operation — but at Popol Vuh, he makes his own, using hand-ground masa, and they’re spectacular. (By the way, those tacos at Centro aren’t inexpensive, but the ingredients get the same scrutiny and skillful treatment as Popol Vuh’s more elegant end game.)
For the duck carnitas at Popol Vuh — the succulent meat is redolent of orange, garlic and cinnamon — he’s using a smoky blue corn, the masa fortified with finely ground toasted chiles.
The seasons are given their due. Until summer sputtered to an end, expertly roasted oysters were dressed with sweet corn. Now Alarcon is tapping the quiet sweetness of celery root, an inspired notion.
The menu has its glitches. A few wobbly dishes suggest that the kitchen hasn’t completely mastered the complications of that hardworking stove. Understatement is the occasional culprit. Rice topped with a poached egg, uncharacteristically dull, was the most glaring example of Alarcon’s occasionally cautionary tone. Which is weird, since he’s presiding over an environment where exuberance would obviously thrive.
Another incongruity? The bread basket. It’s always a welcome salutation, but this one feels misleading, with loaves that bear no relation to what follows; that’s not a knock on their source, the nearby (and first-rate) Aki’s Breadhaus.
Desserts don’t match the moxie (or the skill set) of their savory predecessors. Did I mention that the kitchen counter stools value style over comfort?
Such complaints can become guilt-inducing, because, truly, there’s so much to admire here. For starters, the restaurant-as-urban-renewal-catalyst trend is definitely in play. It took true vision for general manager Jami Olson, Alarcon and the rest of the ownership team to gaze upon an out-of-the-way, century-old adhesives factory and somehow see “restaurant.”
Calling the original exterior an eyesore is being generous (inside, the floor was obscured under two inches of glue). Converting the sad-sack property into a pair of interconnected and wonderfully idiosyncratic settings was directed, with considerable verve, by that maker of so many memorable dining venues, Shea Design of Minneapolis.
Centro — the name is a reflection of its gathering-place vibe — is wide-open, gregarious, casual and populist. Popol Vuh (POP-uhl VOO) — its name is drawn from a Mayan legend — is intimate and serious-minded but fun, its industrial appearance softened but not diluted by thoughtful touches.
Another trend is using local artists to place their imprint on the premises: Charlene Weeks (a vivid exterior mural), Mike Smieja (a grove of slender terra cotta pots, seemingly floating below the ceiling) and a colorful, monumental and mood-enhancing cross stitch from Wone Vang and Youa Vang.
Then there’s Alarcon. He left his southern Mexican village 15 years ago and headed north for work, to support his mother and siblings. Today, it’s hard to imagine Minneapolis without him.