To fully embrace the voices that guide Pedro Wolcott's cooking, consider the jerk chicken from his restaurant, Guacaya Bistreaux.
It arrives already sectioned, dark with grill marks and painted with a glaze made with a different type of ketchup (Panamanian) that tangentially recalls jerk seasoning (Jamaican): the heat is tempered, and it's slightly — though not unappealingly — sweeter. The chicken is sandwiched between a guandú-style risotto (Panamanian), creamy from the coconut milk in which it's simmered, and blanketed with braised kale and bacon (New Orleanian).
Wolcott's heritage may explain the culinary trifecta and his abilities to make dishes, like this chicken, work. Though he's from Panama, Wolcott shuttled between there and Louisiana, borrowing influences specific to his mother and grandmother, the cuisines of Afro-Antillean and Latin-Caribbean. Eventually he made his way to New Orleans, cooking at the luminaries — Commander's Palace and Emeril Lagasse's NOLA Restaurant.
It may also explain why Guacaya is named the way it is. "Guacaya" is shorthand for Cerro Guacamaya, the majestic mountain near where Wolcott grew up, "Bistreaux" for the Louisianian influence, a French-ish play on the word bistro.
At Guacaya, which Wolcott opened in August, along with his business partner, Giancarlo Quintero, he adjusts for the Midwest and, more specifically, the North Loop. This means you might walk past a Smack Shack, Bonobos and the Déjà Vu gentlemen's club before arriving at the glass-walled restaurant, situated at the foot of an industrial-looking apartment building. Outside, there's a large patio that seats up to 50; inside, the Caribbean leaf wallpaper is juxtaposed against the kind of table lamps you'd see at a New Orleans jazz bar; above you, there's a light fixture embraced by a tropical basket weave. The colorful tapestry-like paintings are done by his cousin, Alfonso. Yes, the chicken is tempered, and the spiciest thing on the menu is probably the aji amarillo, which recalls spicy mayo. This, like a few other things on the menu, will make you wince, though not uncomfortably. Guacaya gently pushes its residents toward an underrepresented cuisine — Latin-Caribbean — without being standoffish about it.
So consider, too, the Mofongo. The traditional Puerto Rican dish is made with fried green plantains, mashed with garlic and mixed pork cracklings, with a starchy, chewy texture not unlike Thanksgiving stuffing served in the form (and size) of a miniature upside-down cake and adorned with gently charred okra and broccoli. I don't know why this dish only intermittently appears on the menu. It's terrific.
On the more Louisianian side of Wolcott's repertoire, you may consider the Cajun firecracker egg rolls, which taste more appealing than their Benihana-esque moniker. A thick armor is just brittle enough to shatter, a flavorful filling is bound by boudin sausage and pepper jelly gastrique is just acidic enough to temper.
These are the winners, intersecting the best of Guacaya's origins. But there are examples where the voices muddle. The market fish in a ceviche was red snapper, but it could have been a less prized fish, like tilapia, as it likely had steeped in its marinade too long when it arrived at our table tasting like 7-Up. A sweet potato mousse sweetens it even more (better would be raw sweet potato, Peruvian-style). On our visit, the promised avocado mousse was missing, and so was the canchita, a type of popcorn, which was supposed to provide a textural counterpoint.
A trio of grilled portobello mushrooms on Spinach totopos, or fried corn chips, looks primed for Instagram, but carried an off-flavor as I bit in — an unpleasantly sour marinade that detracted from the otherwise fine cookery of the fungus.
But when Wolcott pares down and wises up, the dishes get more dialed in. The barbecue shrimp appetizer may be a little salty, but it's cooked till springy, with an obscenely smoky undertone; the sauce, while marketed as a New Orleans-style "tangy and spicy," is more reminiscent of a demi-glace, which captures Wolcott's skill in reducing a bone-rich stock and wine to something rich, dark and full of depth.
The second act of shrimp, in a shrimp and grits, may be a little sweet — it's marinated in beer barbecue — but the smoked cheddar corn grits are as smooth as polenta, and the mushrooms are appealingly woody. In all, a bowl of comfort.
And although the churrasco (steak) is a little haphazardly cut and therefore tough in parts, the char is there; each bite is gloriously meaty, and the chimichurri is fresh and alive. For more tenderness, opt for the skewers of carne, marinated in sour orange.
The best dish may very well be Wolcott's simplest, and it's yet another that appears only occasionally on the menu: a squash soup that is nutty, creamy and mildly sweet, topped with crisp quinoa and scallions, like confetti.
With more precision, other dishes could share the spotlight. Yucca fries had an aggressively thick hard texture on one visit but were perfectly crisp during another, just like the plantains; the arepitas, or cornmeal arepas, were toothsome but the lechon azado, or roasted pulled pork, was dry.
You can find minor faults when you're on the hunt, but at prices palatable given the neighborhood, you could give them a break or two. The chicken, which can feed up to two, is $26. Forty dollars buys you a whole fried fish, ceremoniously curled on a platter, with pockets of meat sectioned off so you needn't carve. Yes, it's a little overcooked, but a worthy trade-off to ensure that the skin remains crisp near the edges. There's also coconut rice, fried plantains as big as hockey pucks, and enough dipping sauces to make it a party.
Soon, Guacaya will transition to full-service dining; now it's counter-serve and it doesn't take reservations. Walk-ins will still be welcome, in keeping with Wolcott's larger than-life hospitality. By then, Guacaya may evolve, and likely for the better. I cannot wait.
Location: 337 Washington Av. N., Mpls., guacayabistreaux.com
Hours: Tue.-Fri. 4-11 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Lunch is takeout only Wed.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Prices: Tapas range from $12-$20, entrees $24-$28, sides $8-$10, desserts $9.
Beverage program: Think tropical, with several rum and mezcal drinks ($13) inspired by Wolcott's heritage, as well as a handful of affordable NA options ($8). Wine and beer is available too; Guacaya is the only place in town that has Abita, the Louisianian-brewed beer, on tap.
Worth noting: Brunch is served weekends from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. with a small but mighty menu, from steak and eggs to churr-waffles.
What the stars mean:
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.