It is a simple fact of life that eventually the apprentice will rise up and kill the master. Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader. Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. The Sorcerer and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
The Twin Cities food scene flaunts this dangerous trend by graciously pairing Master Chefs with inexperienced-but-promising young cooks. Imbued with a new wealth of knowledge, these chefs are going out and starting up restaurants of their own. Although there have been no reported murders yet, it’s only a matter of time before one of these apprentices takes up the yoke of generations and shivs some culinary genius.
Until then, though, the apprentices are killing it in the MSP food scene. We’ve heard from several of them, and one (Ben Rients) has generously joined us for not one but two meals around town. Ben rose up through the ranks at Restaurant Alma, before becoming a master on his own right and starting up the FDC Year Two Award Winning restaurant* Lyn65.
*Definitely their most prestigious accolade
Ben either likes paying it forward or has a death wish, because he’s using his Master powers to bring his own apprentice up through the ranks: Chef Jose Alarcon, a current Lyn65 veteran who will be heading up their new venture Popol Vuh.
Popol Vuh is an upscale Central American concept restaurant, currently running ticketed pop-up events inside Lyn65’s space. I should say that the food is upscale, because the restaurant, much like the personalities behind it, are about as down-to-earth as possible. In fact, they go out of their way on the menu to state the restaurant’s ethos unambiguously: “Popol Vuh will not be an upscale restaurant. Popol Vuh will not be a pretentious restaurant. It will focus on quality ingredients, wood fire, and simple preparation.”
Popol Vuh translates to “Book of the People” from K’iche’, the largest non-Spanish language spoken in Guatemala. From the menu, the concept is described as “a statement of our relationship to the earth, the animals, and the people with whom we connect and coexist.”
Long story short: this is serious food for people who care more about the quality of a dish they’re eating than making sure they meet the dress code at the restaurant that it’s being eaten in.
We have had lots of great meals throughout our first three years of Fancy Dinner Club. Much more often than not, I leave a restaurant contentedly full and thinking back fondly about the food we had. Popol Vuh was a different experience than your typical Fancy Dinner. The food was prepared with such care, such love. The ingredients were surprising and original, the flavors familiar and exotic. The drink pairings were perfect.
Popol Vuh is the best meal I’ve ever had.
Let me share it with you, as much as pictures, B-rate jokes and mediocre prose can allow.
Food and Drinks
Popol Vuh isn’t a restaurant yet, more of a concept at this point in its life. The Lyn65 team has it down enough to start hosting pop-up dinners in their own space, but do not yet have a space for Popol Vuh to call its own. Four of us (Brad, Matt, Chris and Chris’ wife Teresa since The J had a volleyball game) nabbed literally the last four tickets from the sold-out pop-up dinner in November and grabbed the last available table – the one closest to the kitchen – when we arrived for our seating at 8PM.
This ticketed event was a prix-fixe menu: five courses including dessert. Drink pairings were additional and optional, and nearly all of us decided to go with the pairings. Jami Olson does an amazing job with Lyn65’s cocktail program, and her work on Popol Vuh’s parings definitely enhanced the experience of the meal. More on that in a moment.
Pre-meal, we were treated to a surprise, as we were brought a palette-cleansing drink. I don’t remember what this drink was called, but it had a flower in it, which we all ate with a dash of apprehension once we were informed that the flower was, in fact, edible.
Our first course was an Aguachile, which I don’t really know how to describe so I’ll throw a picture of it in.
Like I said, I don’t really know how to describe this dish – it was like a savory, clean, cold appetizer soup. But instead of being terrible like that sounds, it was amazing. One of the ingredients in this dish is Cactus, but I must not have gotten any because my mouth didn’t get poked.
There was also avocado and cucumber and other weird stuff that I don’t generally like in the dish, but… it worked. All the clean flavors blended together with the cool broth to create a perfect start to our meal. The dish was paired with a small pour of white wine, something I’m also not fond of, but it all… worked.
The next course was Esquites. Again, just look at the pic below:
This was a corn dish, with Epazote, Queso Cojita and Chile de Arbol. While interesting, it frankly doesn’t look like all that much. A small-ish pile of corn and corn-like things. But Oh. My. God. This was a unanimous best dish of the night. There was a super satisfying mix of textures with this course, and it tasted like this is how all corn dishes should taste like from now on.
The dish was paired with the Tequila Rose cocktail, an intriguing combo of tequila, rosemary, almond grappa and orange. This drink pairing fully encapsulated what drink pairings are supposed to do. After having a sip or two, Brad said “this drink just makes me want to eat corn.” Well played, Popol Vuh. Well played indeed.
Next up: Camarones Al Ajillo. Or, to the uninitiated, Shrimp and Garlic Stew.
This stew also contained Verdolagas (Mexican parsley, grown in the chef’s backyard!) and Potatoes, and was another unanimous hit. Even Teresa, who is a seafood-phobe, liked this dish.
And the broth, oh man was that something. Savory, garlicky but not too garlicky, just a wonderful dish. We all scooped up as much as we could of the broth and downed our next paired drink, a crisp and refreshing lager called Dona Chela.
Dona Chela is a super clean, refreshing, craft Mexican-style lager brewed right here in the Twin Cities by first-generation American and former Marine Sergio Manancero. This beer is basically your perfect summer beer while out grilling or enjoying a day at the beach. Lyn65 has its hands in Dona Chela, as well, and is hoping to find a space large enough to house the Popol Vuh restaurant and a small brewing operation for Dona Chela. Either way, if you see this beer at your local liquor store, pick some up.
Finally, our main course: Pato al Tamarindo, or duck breast.
The duck breast came with Ancho-Tamarind Glaze, Parsnips and Apples. The meat was perfectly prepared – slight crisp on the skin, almost unbearable tenderness in the middle. The pairings of the glaze, parsnips and apples turned the flavor of this dish up to 11. I don’t have much recollection of our drink pairing with this dish, but after so many courses and drinks to go along with them, can you blame me? I think it was a red wine.
Our final course was the Postre, dessert, a small chocolate cake with Guava sorbet and Amaranth
The amaranth is the little seed stuff sprinkled about, and it added a really nice texture to a gooey chocolate cake and sweet guava sorbet. I normally wouldn’t peg guava and chocolate to go well together, but you just have to trust the chef sometimes. This one worked out. But don’t take my word for it, take Brad’s face:
After our meal, each of us was presented with a little gift bag, containing a bottle of Dona Chela beer and a bottle of hot sauce, along with information about both Dona Chela and Popol Vuh. It was a completely unnecessary touch, but one that I wasn’t surprised by the more I thought about it. Ben Rients and his crew dish up no-nonsense quality food, but they’ve always had more than their fair share of humility and respect for their customers.
Ben and Chef Jose Alarcon gave us a small gift, but the meal was the true gift we received that evening. I anxiously await Popol Vuh’s next event – it is can’t miss for me, and if you get a chance to eat there at some point in the future I strongly encourage you to give it a try.