Any good debater will tell you that the most thrilling episodes in any match are when each side cohesively builds on another. It may not immediately seem like it at Chelas, which opened in Minneapolis' Tangletown neighborhood in December, but the prospect of marrying Latin American and Vietnamese cuisine by way of tapas can evoke these moments.
One dish on Chelas' menu, called Bo Kho Menudo, certainly does. The sum here is greater than their parts: Bo Kho, the incandescent Vietnamese beef stew, and Menudo, a traditional Mexican chile-based broth made from tripe. It's much more than the proteins (tender), the starch (hominy, snappy; crostini, crisp), and their accoutrements (carrots). The five-spice, endemic to Bo Kho, tames the tripe to softer embrace; the beans absorb the broth well, and that broth, well, is as nuanced as it can be.
Moments like these make you wonder why fusion gets a bad rap. It shouldn't. Not when the kitchen is manned by Luom Bronko Do and Timmy Truong, chefs who dabbled cross-culturally with ventures such as the former Fusion Eatery (in downtown St. Paul) and Soul Fu (in Minneapolis' North Loop Galley). The way their talents converge like a Vulcan mind meld may explain how they've been able to come up with dishes like Bo Kho Menudo.
But I'm of two minds about several of the other dishes across the menu. A side of bok choy isn't more inspired than the fact that it's grilled, then slicked with oyster sauce and fried shallots. And a cucumber salad needed more time in its marinade, relying instead on a chile crisp that underdelivers on heat. Both dishes don't make me think outside the Southeast Asian box.
Nor does the nuoc mam that accompanies most dishes. It does little to enliven flavorful scallops in their shells, and a charred-enough but rubbery squid. The tacos are more expressive in their crossover, but they don't hold their own.
Those dishes may represent a brand of fusion that stops short of the finish line. It can go astray, too. Are uni and caviar (roe) the right vehicles for bone marrow? They can be, with the right amount. But these lavish ingredients do little more than feed an Instagram post.
I attribute the identity crisis to a restaurant still in flux. The banner-style signage outside suggests you're entering a pop-up; the more lived-in signage inside, Prieto, is a reminder that the space it once housed is still in there, somewhere, until Do and Truong fully take over the restaurant. Across the restaurant are design cues that speak both languages — inverted wicker-basket lamps, reminiscent of Southeast Asia, and a neon "Taqueria" sign that glows above the kitchen pass.
But that doesn't explain why several dishes, the appetizers especially, are too sweet. An otherwise tender beef salad is marinated simply in lime juice, our server tells us, but it tasted like soda. Wings had the right shatter but leaned more sweet than sour.
The Goi salad is better balanced — light as it is fresh. And the treasures within it — slivered shrimp and pork meat, fried crackling, crispy shallots — flanked by shrimp puffs of various colors, are appealing.
Even better are the clams. The best part is the coconut broth, which looks like murky water but tastes like a dream. Yes, it's sweet, but within it are savory layers that made me want to spoon ladles of it over rice, and I didn't stop until there wasn't any left.
You can cobble together a fine meal from the gems on the menu. My favorites among them, besides the Menudo, warrant repeat visits.
Grilled eggplant retains the smoky char and a milky interior that eats like bread pudding; lamb chops may look a little gray, but they're juicy from the bind of fat that seeps into the flesh — at least enough for you to be able pick them up by the bone and enjoy with gusto, as diners at my table all did. I wish I could say the same for grilled rib-eye, which resembled more skirt steak in texture and appearance and was tenderized to abandon.
But my thoughts are with two large-format dishes. The first, a branzino, is diligently cooked and, at $30, a steal. Beside the fish are a cornucopia of sides that you may turn to create a wrap, bo-ssam style, but you'll forget about them when you realize that the branzino, stuffed with lemongrass and lemon, has silken, sweet flesh on its own, not needing even the nuoc mam.
The second, pork belly, is an equal revelation. The chicharron, or crispy pork skin, has bite, and the meat within is balanced by jiggly fat and tender meat. You tame the carnal pleasures of the pork belly slices with the accoutrements (lettuce, tomato, cucumbers), along with one of the two sauces, the nuoc mam, as the tomatillo one merely accentuates the flavor profile of the pork.
A note of caution: Your dinner may progress with bumps ahead. More than one member of the service team seemed lost; on one night, dishes were not served with the right utensils, and it took a while to get the correct ones. On another, dishes were delivered without knowledge of what they were, even when asked. One server turned to me when a companion pressed for detail on the salad. It was beef.
But as the night advances and the syrupy cocktails kick in, those '90s hits melt doubt. Brian McKnight and Destiny's Child are by your side. Two diners who shared our communal bar table were hitting it off with one of the co-owners. A round of shots, then another.
Only one dessert is offered — cheesecake. And while not housemade, the Vietnamese coffee glaze is. The cake is closer to a Mexican flan, but at this point, who cares? "No One" by Alicia Keys was playing in the background, and we finished the cake in silence.
⋆⋆½ highly recommended
Location: 4751 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-315-5147, chelastapas.com
Hours: Tue.-Sun., 4-11 p.m.
Prices: The well-manicured menu has appetizers ranging from $8 for shrimp and crab toast to $20 for bone marrow toast; salads $12-$14; entrees $15-$28.
Beverage program: Fusion hits the drink menu, too, with drinks like the Grown Folx ($13), mezcal and Du Nord Café Freida with chocolate bitters and sweetened Vietnamese coffee. Beer, wine, seltzers and a full bar, too.
Parking: Shared parking with neighboring restaurants; otherwise, street parking is available.
Tip or no tip: No hospitality charge is affixed to the bill; standard tipping model applies.
Noise level: On nights when the restaurants is busy, it can be uncomfortably loud.
What the stars mean:
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.