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 kombucha 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.”