New on Nicollet

"You'd never know that this used to be a KFC," said my friend as we pulled into the parking lot at La Chaya Bistro. Such are the transformative skills of co-owner (and landscape designer) Dave Kopfmann, who has buffed a prototypical fast-food eyesore into something entirely different. Goodbye, Colonel Sanders. Hello, neighborhood asset.

Inside, chef/co-owner (and Kopfmann's brother-in-law) Juan Juarez Garcia takes his cooking cues from his native Mexico as well as his Italian training, emphasizing organically raised ingredients. For the former, he bakes halibut in banana leaves, or rubs a rib-eye with garlic and cilantro and tops it with a green caper salsa. For the latter, he features house-made pastas -- squid-ink fettuccine tossed with shrimp and cherry tomatoes, ricotta- and spinach-stuffed cannelloni, penne blended with garlic and wild mushrooms -- as well as a dozen plate-size pizzas. A short list of small-plate starters includes grilled vegetables, beef carpaccio, a potato-baby octopus salad and a few green salads. Appetizers average $9, pizzas fall in the $12 range, pastas are around $14 and entrees are between $14.50 and $27.

Weekend brunch starts with house-baked pastries before moving on to pancakes and omelets as well as huevos rancheros built on house-made corn tortillas, empanadas and eggs Benedict made with avocados and salsa verde ($7.25 to $9.50). The bar pours 13 wines by the glass ($6.50 to $8) and more than half of the bottle list is priced at $32 or less.

The place looks as if it should really come into its own when warmer weather arrives. There's a patio in the works -- ditto lunch service -- and Juarez Garcia, who lives just down the street, affirming this restaurant's neighborhood roots, plans on planting an herb garden just outside the kitchen door.

From co-op to cafe

The metamorphosis is no less startling in Minnetonka, where the former strip-mall home of Lakewinds Natural Foods has taken on an energetic new life as Spasso. It's the work of Chris Eriksson and Ryan Sadowski, owners of the Wine Shop, which shares a front door with the restaurant. That proximity obviously explains the restaurant's intelligent wine list, with its 39 by-the-glass choices, its affordable streak (a third of the 96-bottle roster is $25 or less) and its handy Wine Spectator and Robert Parker ratings. Oh, and if diners like what they're drinking, the shop keeps every label in stock.

Chef Damian Tittle's menu is equally extensive. At dinner, salads ($6 to $13) run from the familiar -- field greens with gorgonzola and balsamic, a Caesar -- to grilled skirt steak over romaine and fried onions or focaccia croutons tossed with grilled chicken, mozzarella, grape tomatoes and basil-infused olive oil. Thin-crust pizza ($10 to $12), cooked in an eye-catching wood-burning oven, are sold in 10 varieties, and the pasta selection ($12 to $16) is equally wide-ranging.

There's more: pan-roasted chicken with sautéed spinach, filet mignon in a port demi-glace, saffron-glazed salmon and a puff pastry shell filled with shrimp, scallops and crab are just some of the nine entrees ($16 to $28), and a sides roster ($5) includes creamed corn, roasted potatoes and asparagus with garlic butter. More casual options include burgers done several ways, along with hefty panini and focaccia sandwiches ($9 and $10). Grazers can select from smaller bites (pickled vegetables, meatballs, marinated olives, all $5) or thick polenta fries, tomato-topped bruschetta, an artichoke dip and more ($8 and $9). Desserts ($7) include crème brûlée, gelato and tiramisu.

The wide-open room, lots of dark wood with colorful tinted glass accents, is casual and comfortable, echoing the logo printed on the staffs' T-shirts. "Come as you are," it says, and they mean it. Just what you'd expect from a place named for the Italian word for amusement.

Uptown's latest

Chef/co-owner Hector Ruiz was tablehopping on opening night last week at Indio, and when we told him how much we were enjoying the taquitos al pastor and the moist seared cod in a huitlacoche sauce, he smiled. "This is the food I grew up eating," he said. "It's my mom's food."

Lucky for the greater Uptown Minneapolis dining public, Ruiz wasn't raised on Hamburger Helper. A native of Cuernavaca, Mexico, Ruiz cooked in a number of Twin Cities kitchens -- Tucci Benucch, Zelo, Prima, Three Fish -- before he and his wife, Erin Ungerman, bought El Meson (3450 Lyndale Av. S., Minneapolis). Last year the couple launched their exceedingly charming Cafe Ena (4601 Grand Av. S., Minneapolis), and last week they moved into Uptown, putting a lively Mexican touch on the former Pizza Nea.

Ruiz's dinner menu is divided into three sections. Starters ($4.50 to $14) begin with chips and salsa and a creamy guacamole before moving on to more elaborate dishes: little tortillas topped with shredded pork and cilantro, crispy flautas filled with potatoes and topped with a green tomatillo sauce and a trio of cool ceviches. Salads ($7 to $11) include adobo-marinated chicken over spinach and watercress or a toss of seared tuna, pineapple, jicama and grapefruit. An oven-roasted whole red snapper with charred green onions, pork marinated in lime and serrano chiles, duck-stuffed flautas and oven-roasted ribs smothered in a green mole sauce are just a few of the 12 entrees ($17 to $25).

The bar keeps the party going by maintaining an inventory of more than 50 tequilas, poured both by the shot and in smaller tasting portions. There are big, colorful cocktails, too, as well as a few brightly flavored nonalcoholic drinks built using fruit purées. The airy room hasn't changed much; it's still nice-looking, casual and great for people watching. It's certainly optimal for observing Ruiz and Ungerman hard at work, two people who obviously relish their roles as purveyors of hospitality.