The Skeptical Diner: Pop! and Yum!

Sheer coincidence has led me to dine, within a 12-hour period, at two single-syllable Minneapolis-area restaurants punctuated by an exclamation point.

Both places are reasonably priced, thoughtfully hip, and offer limited menus of well-prepared dishes. And while they’re miles apart physically (Pop! is in north Northeast, Yum! Kitchen and Bakery is in St. Louis Park), they both appeal to a class of diners who want something tasty and chic, but not particularly fussy.

Pop! is decorated with pop art (har har, but it does look good), and has the airily unpretentious atmosphere of a restaurant that is confident in its food.

The menu features Italian pasta, a Thai salad and Swedish meatballs, but is dominated by distinct Latin flair; among other south-of-the-border elements, it features tamales, empanadas, asado and matambre. If there’s a flaw with the menu’s balance, it’s the preponderance of sandwiches that offer workmanlike (but solid) approaches to the sandwich-as-dinner concept. The chicken sandwich with guac, jack cheese and smoked jalapeno mayo was tasty… but it hovered at an “airport bistro” level of accessibility and safety. And the asado sandwich is equally by-the-books, although the incredibly tender texture of the meat elevates it and makes it a worthy dinner option.

The “Pasta B” that I ordered was a classic and eminently tasty bowl of bucatini, pancetta, sausage, cheese and red sauce. No ground broken; no mistakes made. And the portion size was ponderously large enough to make two full meals, meaning the take-out box was well worth the effort.

The appetizer tamale with chipotle-lime sour cream was flat-out delicious, tender and bursting with flavor. One would have been enough for a table of four, and I wished we’d skipped ordering the shrimp and black bean fritters — they were large and leaden. One of these little cannonballs was more than enough.

Dessert was the high point of the meal. Caramel-y dulce de leche crepes with candied hazelnuts and vanilla bean ice cream were intoxicatingly sweet and delicate without being overwhelmingly syrupy or over-sugary. And the bananas Foster came out very warm in an All-Clad saucepan: 10 points for presentation, and at least 8 for taste. (It could have used a bit more thickness and caramelization, but that’s nitpicking.)

Only one complaint: a single order of crepes was a generous serving size for two people, and the bananas Foster “for two” could have served five people comfortably. Pop! is an otherwise sophisticated place; the trucker-sized portions feel like a salute to an earlier era when restaurants were primarily evaluated by whether they “filled you up.”

Breakfast at Yum! is equally as sophisticated, if not more so. The clean, airy, well-lit space is all class, down to the fact they serve coffee in $7.50 Bodum vacuum glasses. If you’ve ever dealt with these things before, you know that they’re a pleasure to handle, keep your coffee warm, and go KBANG! when you drop them.

Come to think of it, KBANG! would be a good name for a new Thai bistro, as long as we’re naming restaurants after verbal ejaculations.

The eponymous Yum! breakfast was a tour de force of well-prepared American favorites prepped in a manner acceptable to even the most fussy Yuppie. The scrambled eggs were light and airy. The onion/potato/bell pepper hash was perfectly seasoned and sliced (love it!) into dozens of tiny identically sized building-block style cubes. And the sausage patties were pleasantly round and perfect for serving on the deeply browned and thick-cut toast.

Even better was my wife’s egg sandwich. The perennial problem with egg sandwiches is an unpleasant ratio or texture contrast between the bun and the warm egg/cheese/bacon filling. Yum! solves the problem by using a very soft, relatively slender roll that cradles and absorbs the contents of the sandwich. And the roll has a rough texture that adds a bit of interest without overwhelming the filling. It should be noted that the bacon was particularly delicious, even for bacon.

All in all, the place feels like something straight out of SoHo, down to the incredibly disciplined (and effective) graphic design scheme and the haute cuisine house-baked Ho-Hos in the bakery case. (Tasty, but still Ho-Hos.)

They also sell what appears to be the Platonic ideal of challah bread. Now, if you grew up on challah bread, you know its inherent deliciousness, particularly as a medium for sandwiches. But its elite killer application: French toast. That’ll be appearing at a Skeptical Diner brunch sometime in the near future.

11 Comments so far

  1. Joe (unregistered) on September 21st, 2007 @ 11:51 am

    I really liked Pop!’s menu the last time I was there. Not too pricey and the food is really good.

  2. Erica M (unregistered) on September 21st, 2007 @ 1:32 pm

    Haven’t been to Yum! since I moved away from its immediate vicinity. Never had breakfast there. I’m dying to try this challah french toast, though.

    I remember enjoying lunch there, but not necessarily being particularly wowed by it. Maybe more because I hadn’t gotten the hang of ordering/navigating the place. Plus it was super crowded.

  3. James Norton (unregistered) on September 21st, 2007 @ 1:38 pm

    As far as I could tell, they don’t actually serve challah French toast there. But consider yourself invited to the next brunch over at my place, which will definitely feature it. We do a good caramelized banana topping for French toast, too…

  4. Jason DeRusha (unregistered) on September 21st, 2007 @ 2:16 pm

    Pop is awesome. And super, incredibly kid-friendly. I called once on a Saturday around 5:00 p.m. and asked if they took reservations. They said, “No, how many do you have?” I said, “6.” They said, “well, we have a table of 6 just getting their food now, so when are you coming?” I said I’d be there in a half-hour, they held the table for us, and it was wonderful.

    Food for the safe eaters (my in-laws) and the adventurous eaters (me and my wife). And cheap kid meals ($5) that include food, fries, fruit, a drink and a cookie. Pop’s neighbor Snap! also has cheap/delicious salads, pizza, and ice cream ($2/scoop).

  5. Erica M (unregistered) on September 21st, 2007 @ 2:24 pm

    they don’t actually serve challah French toast there

    Oh, oops! I misread. So when should I be over?

    I’ve been told the best place to get challah is Fishman’s Kosher Deli on Minnetonka Blvd.

    Pop’s neighbor Snap!

    Is there a Crackle! ? (I had to ask.)

  6. James Norton (unregistered) on September 21st, 2007 @ 3:05 pm

    My understanding is that the people who own Pop! and Snap! wanted to buy the bakery in between the two and name it Crackle! But, no sale. So right now, it’s “Snap! Maria’s Bakery! Pop!” or something like that.

  7. Aliecat (unregistered) on September 21st, 2007 @ 11:31 pm

    I have an insanely good recipe for stuffed french toast that I can pass on to you, if you like…

  8. James Norton (unregistered) on September 21st, 2007 @ 11:40 pm

    I can’t say no to that. Bring on the recipe!

  9. geoff (unregistered) on September 23rd, 2007 @ 7:21 am

    I wish POP! was in my neighborhood…it’s a great place to go for a fun and creative meal at a fair price (and my kids love SNAP!, too). As far as having Yum! in my neighborhood, we already have an overpriced cafeteria style meh restaurant just like it called D’amico & Sons…perhaps you’ve heard of it?

    Fishman’s Challah is pretty good (we used to get one from my kids’ school every Friday), but based purely on taste and texture, the best challa in the Cities comes from “It Takes The Cake”. It’s located in a stripmall on Greenbrier Rd. in Minnetonka. Just south of Cedar Lake Rd. and just east of Hopkins Crossroad.

  10. James Norton (unregistered) on September 23rd, 2007 @ 1:36 pm

    I have to take issue with Yum! being meh, for breakfast, at least — both the entrees we ordered were elegantly prepared and delicious. I’d describe them as reasonably priced for the quality. As for lunch or dinner, you might be totally right. I wasn’t particularly encouraged by the menu to come back for anything but breakfast.

  11. Erica M (unregistered) on September 23rd, 2007 @ 8:26 pm

    I have an insanely good recipe for stuffed french toast that I can pass on to you, if you like…

    Yes, please!

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