Might the little neighborhood bistro be to dining what the little black dress is to fashion?
Just as you can dress up or dress down with this fashion staple, such a bistro offers a gathering place that’s a lively cafe by day and doubles as a charming dinner spot by night. It’s a place where locals flock to break up or make up, to celebrate or commiserate, to enjoy a solo burger and a beer or to book a birthday dinner for eight. Like the proverbial black dress, a great bistro should be classy, but not fussy––or stuffy. Rather than aiming for “upscale”––polite code for throwing a lot of money at a place––it exudes a spirited elegance that defies a price tag.
Oh, and as price tags go? It shouldn’t be outrageously expensive.
When you discover a little bistro that’s not in your neighborhood, you might even find yourself fantasizing about moving to that neighborhood. Much as I did on a recent evening, as I stumbled out of the Latin-inspired La Mesa in Minneapolis' Bryn Mawr in a cioppino-induced haze.
Chef Juan Yunga hails from Cuenca, Ecuador, a colonial city high in the Andes whose historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The menu is peppered with spices and ingredients native to this region, from aji (a gentle hot sauce) and mote (Andean corn) to tamarillo (red tree tomatoes). He met his wife and business partner, Ann Carlson-Yunga, two decades ago at the Nicollet Island Inn.
“We wanted to open a great neighborhood restaurant with pan-South American food,” says Carlson-Yunga, “where guests can experience some of Ecuador’s magical flavors.”
“And their incredible hospitality,” she adds with a smile. “El cariño.” (This loosely translates to warmth and affection.)
On a recent Sunday, I sipped a white sangria that, according to chef Yunga, was the unofficial tipple of choice on the restaurant’s inviting patio this past summer. Its sweetness comes from fresh peaches and mangos they roast in their wood-burning oven, lending a decidedly South American twist to the classic Spanish drink. (The oven, a centerpiece of the bar area, also churns out appealing-looking pizzas, including a roasted corn special with cotija, roasted garlic, and cilantro.)
I was fairly thrilled at my first foray into llapingachos, a classic Ecuadorian preparation of potato cakes stuffed with cheese. I’ve enjoyed many a potato cake, from Swiss rösti to Czech bramboracky to Jewish latkes, and am generally a fan. Yet Yunga’s version––oozing with queso fresco, spiked with aji, studded with those luscious tamarillos––transcends mere comfort food and ventures into the borderlands of the sublime.
Cioppino is a dish that, done well, announces itself on the way to the table by wafting a trail of fragrant steam through the air. Such was the case with the heady bowl my server gently set down: mussels, jumbo shrimp, gorgeous scallops, and mahi-mahi swimming in a rich broth of tomato and fresh basil with a gentle kick of spice.
Everything’s made from scratch here, which means the flan––a dessert that can easily turn alarmingly gelatinous––is a creamy thing of beauty made without shortcuts: cream rather than condensed milk, delicately scented with fresh orange.
The bar area offers cozy seating for couples and solo diners: Choose between a long, black bar offering a view of the wood-burning oven, or a row of little candlelit tables flanking the industrial-chic glass and aluminum garage doors. Beyond, the high-ceilinged dining room amps up the drama with dark wood, dramatic lighting, and eye-popping giant canvases painted by accomplished local artist Thor Eric Paul.
It’s friendly, cozy, and also a little bit sexy. And isn’t that exactly the kind of elusive magic a great neighborhood bistro can summon?
230 Cedar Lake Rd. S., Minneapolis