Popol Vuh, a high-end Mexican restaurant, opened in trendy Northeast Minneapolis—or Nordeast as the really trendy people refer to it—last autumn and we’ve been planning to eat there ever since. This even though they describe their cuisine in terms I deplore: “elevated Mexican cuisine”. Mexican cuisine does not need to be elevated. We don’t refer to high-end French or Italian or Japanese restaurants as serving “elevated” versions of those cuisines and there is really no need to justify higher prices for a high-end, cheffy iteration of Mexican cuisine by calling it “elevated”. And people who might be iffy about paying the big bucks for any form of Mexican food—alas, I am sure such people exist, and not just in the Twin Cities—are not, I think, very likely to go, “Oh, so it’s elevated Mexican food, that’s entirely different!” In other words, you’re not convincing anyone to come by billing your food as “elevated”, you’re only displaying anxiety about the status of what you do and inadvertently implying that the rest of the cuisine is down there somewhere near a gutter.
One other non-culinary note: I’m not sure if this was just happenstance on the night we were there but we noticed that while the chefs at Centro, the casual taqueria, seemed to all be Hispanic, the chefs at Popol Vuh—and also seemingly all the servers—were white. Now I’m sure there may be reasonable pipeline issues and this is, of course, the case at pretty much all high-end restaurants in the Twin Cities and beyond, but it seems more troubling at a high-end Mexican restaurant that, executive chef aside, there are seemingly no Hispanic staff cooking or serving the food. This is not a question of authenticity but of who the rising profile of immigrant cuisines benefits. And the discrepancy between two restaurants sharing the same space seems quite striking.
I wanted to get all that off my chest up top. I am pleased to tell you that our meal itself was, on the whole, rather good. Not everything was very good—and a couple of things I did not care for much at all—but the highs were very high; and with the flagrant exception of the dessert course, the baseline for everything else was high. But before I get to the details of the meal, let me back up a bit.
In case you don’t know, Popol Vuh is part of a double act. The large space is actually occupied by two restaurants. On the left, as you enter, is Centro, a casual, hip taqueria, open all day, every day. Off to the right, through a buffer zone that acts as an effective sound-dampener, is Popol Vuh—dinner only, Tuesdays through Sundays—which for all intents and purposes looks indistinguishable from your standard-issue contemporary high-end spot. There are a number of tables and booths and there are also a large number of seats at a bar overlooking the chefs at work in front of wood-burning grills and ovens. (Martina, In Bloom, Popol Vuh: wood fire cooking is obviously having a bit of a moment in the Twin Cities.) Centro, which opened first, and Popol Vuh are spin-offs of sorts from Lyn 65 in Richfield. The chef, Jose Alarcon, cooked at Lyn-65 and that kitchen was the springboard to the opening of Popol Vuh—other people from that kitchen made the move to Popol Vuh alongside him. Popol Vuh shares Lyn 65’s general ethos of informality of style but prices here are higher. Our meal came in at just over $80/head, on par with our meal at Martina and higher than our meals at Hyacinth and In Bloom.
Does the food justify the high prices? Despite the fact that not everything hit at a high level, I would say yes. But let me first tell you what we ate. We were a group of four—we were joined by the friends who were at Hyacinth with us—and were seated across the corner of the bar—not optimal but still able to talk. As at Hyacinth we got a lot of the menu and got it all effectively to share among us—which our server encouraged us to do.
Para la Barra
- GRILLED OYSTERS celery root salad, lime beurre, crema 16. Our first bite, this was fine but not very much more. Four small oysters—whose provenance was not mentioned—that disappeared under everything else that was on top of them (though all the other stuff was indeed tasty).
- OCTOPUS squid ink aioli, red tortilla, chorizo y papas 15. This was much better. The octopus was perfectly cooked. However, none of us were particularly impressed by the rest of the stuff on the plate.
- SMOKED RIBS tamarind-habanero glaze, salsa verde, escabeche 18. These meaty pork ribs, however, were dynamite. I would come back just to eat them
- CACTUS SALAD nopales, lime vinaigrette, queso fresco, avocado 12. Also just excellent, with a perfect mix of textures and flavours—bright acid melding with salt and the mellow creaminess of the avocado.
- DUCK CARNITAS sope, rajas con crema, escabeche 14. This was executed very nicely but I don’t think it got any of us very excited. The duck was rather anonymous and I found myself wishing for a more traditional rendition of carnitas with pork. There was also some pickled kohlrabi over the top that was billed as kimchi but really should not have been.
We appreciated the smaller plates—especially the ribs and cactus salad—but were not overly-impressed by them as a whole. However, as one of our friends put it, this turned out to be the rare contemporary meal where the mains blew the smaller plates away.
- COSTILLA short rib, cippolinis, avocado leaf masa cake, mole coloradito 33. I ate most of this and it was bloody excellent. No blood in it, I hasten to add, just perfectly tender short rib in a dynamite mole that was a pleasure to mop up with the masa cake.
- PATO duck breast, tamarindo, parsnip puree, mole mancha manteles 32. Also very good with very nicely done duck over another excellent mole.
- CARNE ASADA grilled hanger steak, chayote, jugo de chile pasilla 28. This was the missus’ and she was probably the least pleased with her selection of entree. The sauce seemed unbalanced with a bit too much acid and the steak was not charred very much—I didn’t ask but I wonder if it had been cooked sous vide and then grilled to finish. It was far from bad but also far from the quality of the other three dishes in this course.
- CHULETA pork chop, huaxmole, gigante beans, celery root 30. This, on the other hand, was uniformly excellent, from the massive but perfectly roasted and tender pork chop to the excellent huaxmole that tied everything together.
Alas, things fell apart with the desserts.
- FLAN chamomile, caramel, blood orange 8. The flan was dense to the point of being rubbery and the fruit—which included un-billed strawberries—overwhelmed everything else.
- MEXICAN MOUSSE chocolate, chiles, epazote cream 9. Neither the chiles nor the epazote cream made much of an impression. But, again, un-billed berries—this time a sweet blackberry compote—completely dominated proceedings. This was tasty in its own way but utterly basic.
For a look at the restaurant and the food please launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for my thoughts on cocktails (which we liked) and the service/overall experience (which we had some reservations about).
So, drinks. We each had one cocktail and each liked what we had:
- TEQUILA NEGRONI barrel-aged tequila, Cappalletti, Cocchi di Torino
- NORTE Y SUR Mezcal, Aquavit, Dolin Genepy, red bell pepper, lemon, corazon bitters
- DRINK OF THE WILD Sotol, Chartreuse, Aperol, lime
- SANGRIA red wine, rum, chipotle, cardamom, pineapple, star anise, cinnamon
Why then didn’t we have more? Well, this gets to one aspect of the meal we were not thrilled by: it all went by at warp speed. Our reservation was for 8 pm. We were seated shortly after and placed our orders by about 8.15. And we got our check at 9.20. It felt like we were barely there. I’m not sure if service is quite that fast if you’re at a table but we barely had time to talk. And speaking of being at a table, at the time I made the reservation I was told that four seats at the bar is all they could do. Now maybe people cancelled but one table for four was available from the time we sat down to the time we left and other tables opened up and stayed open shortly after we sat down as well—it would have been nice to have been offered the option of moving to one of those. It was pleasant at the bar, especially as we could chat with the young chef in front of us, but it wasn’t very conducive to conversation between a party of four.
Other aspects of the service were also a bit iffy. Our server did not write anything down and when repeating our order to us left a couple of things out. And despite our repeating what we wanted not all of it came out. We’d ordered a side of roasted cauliflower and when our mains came out we realized it had not showed up. But given the massive portion sizes of the entrees we decided against asking for it. He never remembered—thankfully he also did not put it on the bill. He also had some trouble remembering our dessert order despite the fact that we ordered only two items from a list of four. I would suggest that they require pen and paper.
Despite the off-notes mentioned above—in food and service—I would recommend checking Popol Vuh out, especially if you like Mexican food. The ingredients are excellent, the cooking is creative and inspired, combining contemporary cheffy flourishes seamlessly with traditional flavours and textures. We all agreed that we’d come back here quicker than we would return to Hyacinth—though the short menu and the fact that it apparently doesn’t turn over very often might militate against that. On my own I’d be very happy to sit at the bar and just get the cactus salad and the ribs. As it is, we’ll be back to try Centro before we return to Popol Vuh. And we’re also looking forward to giving the other new’ish high-end Mexican place, Colita, a try. If you’ve been to both and can compare them, please write in below.