Why splurge on a tasting menu unless you want to be surprised? It’s the philosophical opposite of going to your favorite burger joint, where you always order the exact same burger, cooked exactly the same way, because to deviate from habit would be to court disappointment.
In this spirit, northeast Minneapolis’ Popol Vuh—which opened August 15—offers a nearly ideal tasting menu, batting four-for-four in terms of dishes I’d never tasted before. (Five-for-five if you include the corn and wheat berry amuse bouche flecked with guajillo aioli.)
Co-owner Jami Olson, formerly of Lyn 65, teams up with co-owner/chef Jose Alarcon to create expansive four-course menus ($45) that trace the seasonal Mexican cuisine of Alarcon’s childhood along with his off-the-beaten-path travels through Mexico.
Unsurprisingly, it was already nigh impossible to snag a table when dinner-only Popol Vuh opened on Wednesday. So while you’re waiting for your name to creep up the waiting list, here are five things to know.
5. The space is drop-dead gorgeous.
Do you ever walk into a room and instantly regret your clothes because they pale in comparison to your surroundings? Last week, I was wearing a favorite outfit from a local boutique in Pamplona, Spain, and yet: One step inside Popol Vuh’s impossibly airy, vibrant dining room and it suddenly seemed lackluster. Olson wisely brought Shea Design on board to create this knock-out space out of a century-old adhesives factory. It’s so pretty––aqua tiles, exposed brickwork, 24-pane windows overlooking Indeed Brewing––that at moments it feels like you should be having dinner with Penelope Cruz or Idris Elba. I was so busy gazing admiringly that I nearly forgot to listen when our knowledgeable server explained the first course.
4. Embrace the ancient power of fire.
While I loved my comfy perch against a cappuccino-hued banquette with luxe cinnamon pillows, on my next visit I’m making a beeline for the counter. Nine forest green stools offer a prime view of the kitchen action, where Alarcon cooks on three kinds of fire: a wood-burning oven, an Argentinian plancha, and a cured wood-fired grill made by Grillworks, which has its own cult following. Expect much of the menu to benefit from these ancient cooking techniques—did you know the plancha, along with the tandoor oven, ranks as one of the world’s oldest cooking implements?
3. Flavors truly defy expectations.
Hang on to your hat: This is a roller coaster ride of flavors. That’s not because they’re using exotic meats (there’s no reindeer or rattlesnake) or vegetables you’ve never heard of, but because they combine ingredients in surprising, inspired ways, and use a generous hand with spices and garnishes. Two examples: a creamy-tart jicama, beet, and honey goat ricotta salad, and a marinated beet sope de salpicon, made with masa ground in-house. (My dinner companion enjoyed his tender raw beef salpicon, while I appreciated having the choice of a vegetarian option for any course.) One caveat: Just like a high-adrenaline yoga or Crossfit class, a tasting menu this intense might need a final course cooldown. Something sweet, cool, tart, or creamy? While the dessert menu looks intriguing (a corn and honey panna cotta, a coconut rice arroz con leche), we had to call it quits after the fourth course—roasted lamb. When the waiter asked us if we wanted dessert, the ambivalent yes-but-we’re-too-full-now silence that followed can only be described as “The Silence of the Lamb.”
2. The menu is set to become even more ambitious.
As 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson famously said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” The idea being: In an ever-evolving metropolis like London, there’s always something new to pique one’s fascination. Unfortunately, this isn’t true when it comes to restaurants: one can be tired of them and not be tired of eating, because a lot offer essentially similar versions of the same menu. If a tasting menu offers a reliable—albeit expensive—cure to restaurant boredom, it’s good news that Popol Vuh plans to introduce an eight-course menu. Get ready for a two- to three-hour culinary throwdown, folks! That will be in addition, says Olson, to a la carte options.
1. You say margarita, they say mezcal.
I want to thank my server for not instantly throwing me out on my ass for requesting a frozen margarita with my third course. I explained that I’d spotted a frozen drink machine behind the bar, and that I was a confirmed sucker for a properly made frozen margarita with high quality ingredients—essentially, a unicorn in the cocktail world. Turns out, my server diplomatically explained, that machine churns out guava kombucha slushies laced with smoky mezcal for patrons at the adjacent counter-service taco bar Centro. (Think of them as Olson’s fraternal restaurant twins, living under the same roof.) Of course it does! Because nothing on this cocktail menu is even halfway ho-hum. After your agave flight ($22) served with a tomatillo sangrita chaser ($4), try the pitch-perfect sangria (a rum-spiked cardamom-pineapple-star anise darling of a drink) or one of the mezcal-based cocktails, like the lemony basil Mayahuel with its serrano pepper kick.
1414 Quincy St. NE, Minneapolis