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Review: Popol Vuh and the rise of a Mexican culinary star

Lucy Hawthorne

Lucy Hawthorne

In the Popol Vuh origin story of the ancient K’iche’ Mayans, a pair of Hero Twins defeat Death, avenge their father, and ascend into heaven to become the Sun and the Moon.

Wedged in the crooked elbow of Quincy Street in northeast Minneapolis, the twin kitchens of Centro and Popol Vuh are part of another origin story: The tale of how an industry powered by the kitchen labor of Latinx immigrants gave way to a firmament of Latinx culinary stars.

Or so we hope. Chef Jose Alarcon, a native of Mexico, gives us reason to dream. Formerly of Lyn 65 in Richfield, the chef now helms a stunning sun-and-moon pair of restaurants: the brightly colored, quick-service taco bar Centro, next to the dusky, slower-paced Popol Vuh. Along with Jami Olson, another veteran of Lyn 65 and an exceptional bartender in her own right, Alarcon delivers fun, cheap, and casual eats on the one side, balanced by thoughtful, upscale Mexican dining on the other.

Centro is a festive, open space, with a horseshoe bar as its focal point. The entire menu is available at that bar, but you may also place your order at the front counter and grab a seat at one of the many flanking tables. In either case, the cocktail menu should be considered first. Olson’s handiwork—including the Electric Bunny, a neon Caipirinha with prickly pear; the inventive White Dagger with rum, lime, and tart coconut yogurt; and the blossom-pink guava and kombucha slushy—is a powerful draw all on its own. Set them next to a tray of $3-$5 tacos with peppery braised beef cheeks or cured cactus or crispy fish with guajillo aioli, and you might well wonder why anyone would bother dining anywhere else.

Lucy Hawthorne

Lucy Hawthorne

Easy there, taco-fiends, you’ll find more to savor in this world. A jaunt down a small hallway to Popol Vuh offers proof.

The two restaurants share a building, a main entrance, and bathrooms, but take just a few steps to the right of Centro and the space transforms from playful, first-date casual to moody romance. Original brickwork from the building’s early days as an adhesives factory lends a rustic feel; the low lighting signals a shift to something more serious; the wood-fired oven glinting from the open kitchen casts a welcoming glow. And in that kitchen, the compact maestro Alarcon is pulling all the strings, managing the steady flow of prix fixe courses and shareable plates.

The four-course tasting menu ($45) is a fuss-free way to get a feel for Popol Vuh’s ethos. The dishes change seasonally, and recently comprised a jicama and beet salad; a steak tartare served atop a fresh, thick cornmeal tortilla; a firm hunk of opah fish in a pool of vegan guajillo mole; and an expert carne asada with tender flank steak and a rich chile jus. Aside from the fairly middling salad, each plate was a showcase for Alarcon’s technical skill and perspective, from the clever preparation of the tartare to the surprising depth of the vegan mole.

Lucy Hawthorne

Lucy Hawthorne

The broader menu widens the frame on this snapshot, with a variety of shareable dishes that could easily be hoarded for one’s singular pleasure. (Take hold of the carne asada and tell everyone to get lost.) From the Aperitivo (appetizers) and Para La Barra (from the bar) portions of the menu, we cooed over the sculptural ceviche, a cylindrical mound of marinated fish topped with a crispy tostada you can crack like the surface of a crème brûlée. The Spanish-inspired octopus with aioli, chorizo-like sausage, and potatoes was incredibly flavorful and tender, which only made the drab and chewy tortilla seem more out of place. Oysters dressed with huitlacoche crema and corn salsa were a treat, even—or perhaps especially—for those who aren’t oyster fanatics; the accoutrements make for a quick burst of flavor, without any metallic brine.

As deftly as Alarcon handles the meats and seafood he serves, he’s equally attentive to vegetables and the various sauces they can render. Remember that vegan mole? It layers flavors of pepper and tomatillo with such grace that you will ask a second time, as we did: “Did you say it’s vegan?”

It is, and along with it, a number of other vegetarian dishes signal a genuine commitment to the herbivores among us, including an elegant arroz cremoso, a silky risotto with mushrooms and a poached egg. Brown butter carrots with crema and a dish of roasted broccoli with garlicky bread crumbs are equally worthy, as part of the main feast for vegetarians or as sides for the carnivores. And yet, it was the esquites—essentially creamy, cheesy elote removed from the corn cob—and the simple but mouth-watering tlayuda that stole our hearts. The tlayuda, a mini tostada with refried beans, cheese, tomatoes, and salsa verde, checked all the boxes for crunchy, salty, creamy, and tangy. It’s everything we’ve ever begged a Taco Bell “Mexican pizza” to be in the lonely hours after midnight.

Lucy Hawthorne

Lucy Hawthorne

The cocktails at Popol Vuh are nearly flawless, though entirely different from the goings-on next door. Trade the loud colors of Centro’s Electric Bunny for the Norte y Sur or the La Playa Verde, each vegetal and complex, but bright and easy to sip. The Cof & Co is the quintessential dessert drink: creamy, coconutty, and sweet but not overly so. The Morelos Sour was one of the smoothest drinks we’ve had in town, so carefully balanced in acid and heat and sugar that we couldn’t stop marveling at its simple perfection.

All too often the mark of a partially fledged restaurant is the desserts. Does the effort peter out by the final course? Not here. The menu is brief—a chocolate mousse, a panna cotta, and an arroz con leche—with each item afforded attention and presentation befitting a final impression. Look no further than the chocolate mousse for an example of Alarcon’s genius: Whipped dark chocolate is suspended between tart blueberries on top and an epazote herbal cream at the base. Each bite is a satiny spoonful of herbaceous, bitter, sweet, and sour perfection.

“Everything he does is perfect,” Ben Rients, co-owner of Lyn 65, raved about Alarcon earlier this year. While Alarcon was still at Lyn 65, Rients had asked him if he might want to open his own place someday. Alarcon said yes. He then described Popol Vuh, where seasonality would reign and Mexican and other Latin American cuisines would assume the culinary pedestal that Eurocentric cuisines have long enjoyed.

Popol Vuh opened in August, with Alarcon at the helm. He had risen from line cook to head chef, and in so doing, given us a new origin story worth spreading.

Click here to take a photo tour of Popol Vuh