Love at first bite

Popol Vuh - Soft Open - ©Photo by Kevin Kramer
Popol Vuh dish ©Photo by Kevin Kramer

How do you say hallelujah in Spanish? Bienvenidos will have to do.

I’m thrilled (to put it mildly) that the debut of Northeast’s Popol Vuh was worth the wait. It’s not only the best Mexican restaurant in the metro, it’s a top contender for best of this year’s arrivals overall.

It’s the fine-dining partner of its newly opened next door cousin, the casual Centro — sharing a warehouse-type building’s exposed brick, cement floor, industrial beams and a mingled respect for Mexico’s illustrious culinary heritage with a chef-driven spirit of invention — here celebrating open-flame grilling in sight of patrons sitting at the bar.

Popol Vuh - Soft Open - ©Photo by Kevin Kramer
Popol Vuh – ©Photo by Kevin Kramer

This is the kind of food you expect in a hoity-toity, white-tablecloth setting, but with none of the above. Dinner consists of a four-course tasting menu ($45), with road maps of ingredients detailed by well-versed servers, an engaged and engaging crew indeed.

You pay for four generous courses, but wait: The kitchen can’t be held to that constraint.

The minute you’re seated, a complimentary drink arrives, like nothing I’ve tasted before but delivering a compelling flavor I won’t forget. Called a Salty Sangrita, it’s green and herbal, building from an initial wallop of salt that fades into a burn from chilies that mellows out into pure enjoyment. Think tomatillos, poblanos, cilantro, celery and — um — fish sauce.

Popol Vuh - Soft Open - ©Photo by Kevin Kramer
Popol Vuh – ©Photo by Kevin Kramer

Then a bread basket appears with twin butters, one from Hope Creamery and the other a spread rich with huitlacoche, that fungus that grows on cobs of corn. Deeply delicious.

Next, an addictive scoop of elote. This take-off based on Mexican street food involves roasted corn kernels mingling with chewy wheat berries and guajillo peppers, bound by mayo and dusted with white cheese. I could eat it forever.

Finally, time for the menu’s first course: a salad of juicy jicama and beet (red and yellow) matchsticks tossed with shallots, pepitas for their savory, seed-y crunch and strands of pickled onions. They’re melded by a house-made goat ricotta, smooth as cream and accented with a touch of honey.

Popol Vuh - Soft Open - ©Photo by Kevin Kramer
Popol Vuh – ©Photo by Kevin Kramer

Course two: sope de salpicon. In this case, the salpicon — tiny bits of stuff — is raw, tender, flavorful Angus beef tossed with heirloom tomatoes, tomatillos, purple radish fans, lime and a whole lot more.

The third course calls on that flaming grill to sauté a fillet of sea bass, joined on the plate by what our server called “arroz cremosa,” which surely must translate to “dining heaven.” The mélange stars rich, savory wild mushrooms punctuated by corn and melded with a creamy foam.

Grill time again. This round, it sears a sweet and juicy slice of lamb loin accompanied by a trio of beans — haricots verts, gigante and fava — along with mizuna and red shio (I had to ask: a leafy green) and mole de caderas.

Popol Vuh - Soft Open - ©Photo by Kevin Kramer
Popol Vuh – ©Photo by Kevin Kramer

There’s an ambitious cocktail menu, too (plus wine and beer, natch). I sipped a Bourbon-based Morelos Sour finished off with worm salt — just because I could — while my companion summoned the pisco-based Chicha Morada garnished with popcorn and pineapple.

Turn over that list and you’ll discover a trio of desserts ($8–$9): Mexican mousse (chiles added), arroz con leches with coconut rice and more, and our choice, corn and honey panna cotta. Its (too) solid custardy base is weak on flavor and textural interest. Count on the strawberries and spears of cornhusk for that.

Or don’t bother with dessert, because here’s a tip: As you summon your bill, some tasty little pecan muffins appear, sided with a limpid dollop of crème fraiche and a pansy blossom.

Will I be back? How about, like, tomorrow?

Popol Vuh

1414 Quincy St. NE

345-5527

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