The Mexitalian bistro La Chaya has staying power

Chef Garcia greets diners as if La Chaya were his living room. But you'll still have to pay.

Chef Garcia greets diners as if La Chaya were his living room. But you'll still have to pay.

4537 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis
appetizers $8-$13; entrees $12-$27

Ketchup packets and grease-stained paper napkins are a thing of the past at 4537 Nicollet Avenue in south Minneapolis. So are white walls and plastic tables. You'd never guess that the new restaurant La Chaya was once a Kentucky Fried Chicken. These days, the dining room is colored dusty ochre and decorated with artsy black-and-white photos. Diners sit on a rough-hewn bench made from reclaimed barn wood. Fresh tulips brighten each table. And since slow food replaced fast food, with scratch cooking and fresh, organic ingredients, something else has changed: People want to stick around. Late one night, well after the dinner rush, I watched patrons sip coffee and polish off a bottle of wine, deep in conversation. They'd been at the restaurant for well over two hours and showed no sign of leaving.

Tucked between Lake Harriet and 35W, the Kingfield area has a lot more residents interested in dining at neighborhood restaurants than it has opportunities for doing so. Within a month of La Chaya's opening, some neighbors returned five times, according to chef and co-owner Juan Juarez Garcia. "Now I know them and they know me," he says. "They're already asking for special meals."

La Chaya is a partnership between Garcia and his father-in-law, Dave Kopfmann, who owns the landscape company Yardscapes, which explains the restaurant's lovely, vine-like iron fence, rain garden, and stone patio. Kopfmann and Garcia met in Playa del Carmen in Mexico. It was the Kopfmann family's annual vacation spot, and they frequented a restaurant where Garcia worked. Garcia went to cook in Italy for a few years, and when he returned to Mexico, he happened to run into Kopfmann's daughter, Summer, on the street. That chance meeting eventually spawned a marriage, a move to Minnesota, a house in Kingfield, a son, and a new restaurant.

While most executive chefs tend to stay tucked back in the kitchen, Garcia, dressed in high-top sneakers and a white chef's coat, his hair tied back in a ponytail, spends a fair amount of time each day scooting around the dining room. Sometimes he'll pull up a chair and chat with customers—which include everyone from preppy lawyers to people with face tattoos—while bouncing his two-year-old on one knee. If you didn't know better, you'd think you were in Garcia's living room.

Although La Chaya is named after a bush, native to the Yucatan, that has edible, spinach-like leaves, it's not strictly a Mexican restaurant. The menu also features a large selection of pizzas and pastas that reflect Garcia's time in the Mediterranean. With Mexican and Italian among the most popular ethnic cuisines, Garcia's strategy was to cast a wide net. But my first reaction to La Chaya's dual menu—house-made cannelloni alongside halibut with pumpkin seed sauce and poblano peppers—was the same skepticism I feel toward those multibranded fast-food joints where, say, a Taco Bell and a Dunkin' Donuts share the same storefront. In optimizing popularity, might Garcia sacrifice focus?

That didn't seem to be the case when I was dining light. After several visits, I found La Chaya to be a great spot for relaxing with a glass of wine and a little something to nosh on. My favorite appetizer was a plate of oyster mushrooms sautéed with garlic and chiles, scooped onto slices of grilled bread. I also liked the lightly fried snacks—one with shrimp and calamari, another cubed mahi-mahi—especially the bright cilantro chutney served with the fish kebob. One night I made a simple, healthy meal from a spinach salad and a rustic celery soup that has a pleasantly pulpy texture.

In the course of my visits, I expected that one of the cuisines might outshine the other, but both the Mexican and the Mediterranean sections had strengths and weaknesses. I disliked two very different entrées for the exact same reason: The homemade squid ink fettuccini with shrimp and tomatoes, and the halibut with achiote and sour orange, both had muddied flavors. The fish, cooked in a banana leaf, was a beautiful-looking dish, yet its flavors weren't as vibrant as its color scheme, with the exception of a tangle of pink pickled onions.

Those disappointments didn't give me much confidence about the menu's foremost fusion dish, Mexican pizza. When I saw those two words paired, my first thought was bad idea. What could such a culinary cross—think French gyro or Ethiopian lo mein—be besides a mushy, mis-spiced mess? But the other standard toppings, such as pepperoni and four cheeses, were those I could find elsewhere. Based on my experience with La Chaya's lackluster grilled vegetable pizza, I could probably find better. (I liked the thin, chewy crust and the smokiness of the veggies, but it needed a little more garlic, salt, chile—something—to bring the flavors forward.) When I ordered the Mexican pizza, I noticed the crust's similarity to a toasted tortilla and realized I was basically eating an open-face burrito. The crust was piled with a thick spread of refried black beans and hunks of grilled chicken and chorizo, then topped with cheese and pickled jalapeños to add a sharp, biting crunch. Within a few bites, I was eating my words and praising the merits of Mexican pizza.

In my mind, the strongest section of La Chaya's menu is its brunch list. If you've been among the throngs waiting...and waiting...and waiting for a table at Victor's or Maria's on a weekend morning, you'll appreciate having another Latin breakfast spot in town. Morning meals at La Chaya begin with a cup of strong coffee, Mexican hot chocolate, or fresh-squeezed juice served in tall, fluted glassware—the one with pineapple and lime would be a perfect hot-weather refreshment. The pastries—croissants, sweet rolls, and scones—won't top those of many local bakeries, but the fresh, abundant selection was impressive.

Thick, chewy, house-made tortillas are the base of the huevos rancheros and quesadillas, both of which are mellow dishes that can be spiced up with salsa. My two favorite brunch items were the familiar eggs Benedict with avocado, green salsa, and a side of roasted potatoes, and less-common molletes, just toasts with refried beans and melted cheese served with a coarse-chopped tomato salsa that had enough acid to cut through the rich, pasty beans. (If you don't finish your meal, La Chaya thoughtfully provides biodegradable to-go containers.)

Would I tell someone to drive in from Wayzata to dine at La Chaya? No. But do I think it's a boon for the neighborhood? Certainly. The thing to realize about neighborhood restaurants is that people aren't necessarily going there for the food. Even as culinary conveniences—Simon Delivers, online takeout orders, prepared meals—make it easier to eat at home, people still crave community connection. Sometimes diners go out to eat more for the sake of going out, and they're just as concerned with a restaurant's ambiance and hospitality as its menu. Maybe La Chaya's cuisine could use more focus, but perhaps that's not so important. Even if I didn't always love what came out of La Chaya's kitchen, I always lingered in its dining room.