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Bryn Mawr’s La Mesa Transports Diners to a Tiny, Tucked-Away Slice of Ecuador

Open since 2018, La Mesa serves up llapingachos, chorizo pizzas, and a whole array of wood-fired delights.

Em Cassel|

La Mesa’s llapingachos are a cheesy treat

When Ann Carlson-Yunga and I got on the phone to talk about La Mesa, one of the first things I mentioned was its size. Located in a long and narrow space on the corner of Cedar Lake Road and Oliver Avenue in Minneapolis’s Bryn Mawr neighborhood, the restaurant is cute and compact; even this Eater story, the only piece I could find written after its 2018 opening, mentions the “slim” space. 

But I didn’t realize just how small La Mesa was, in every sense of the word.

“Honestly, it’s four people front of house, four people back of house,” chuckles Ann, who owns the restaurant with her husband Juan Yunga and serves as its front-of-house manager and hostess. “So we’re tiny, yeah.”

Ann and Juan met in the ’90s, when they were working at the Nicollet Island Inn. By the time the couple decided to open a restaurant of their own, Juan had been cooking at local restaurants—including the Mall of America’s California Cafe and the Loring Pasta Bar—for about 20 years.

Juan hails from Cuenca, a city in Ecuador’s Andes Mountains, and while he loved working in a fine-dining setting, those establishments didn't give him the opportunity to cook Latin food. Ann remembers thinking, “Why don’t we do something where, when people say, ‘I love that place!’ they realize it’s you?” They looked for space for several years before finding this one, on a quiet corner not far from their Bryn Mawr home, and opened up a restaurant of their own in 2018. 

La Mesa’s menu isn’t strictly Ecuadorian, though you will find hornado, the country’s famed slow-roasted pork, and llapingachos, those perfect pan-fried potato pancakes. Here, the latter ($12) are served with avocado, aji, and an over-easy egg, giving the cheesy griddled cakes a flavor profile that’s almost brunchy.

Shrimp in coconut sauce, chorizo and roasted corn pizzaEm Cassel

Ann and Juan purchased 230 Cedar Lake Rd. S. right before the pandemic in 2020 and put in some work to fix up the patio, adding a fence that separates it from the sidewalk and conveniently makes it a great spot for dogs to settle in. (During our visit we had the absolute joy of watching a boxer rest its head on the table and get a little bit of people food in return.) It’s peaceful and shaded, with a wide garage door opening into the restaurant.

And while it’s not quite enough to make you believe you’re in South America, the Andean Sour ($13), a delightfully perplexing cocktail made with the Ecuadorian spirit Zhumir, is herbal and refreshing enough to get you close. A bowl of La Mesa’s citrusy ceviche de camaron ($14.50), with chubby shrimps in a brothy, gazpacho-like base, gets you nearer to the equator still.

But throughout the menu, whether strictly Ecuadorian or not, Juan’s heritage is evident in the warm, wood-fired dishes. A creamy coconut shrimp entree ($25) arrives artfully plated and accompanied by sweet plantains; pizza toppings include roasted corn and chorizo. We went ahead and added chorizo to the corn pizza ($16) for a blend of sweet and savory, and were rewarded with a gentle chili heat and lots of cheese, all arranged on some of the best crust I've enjoyed on a Twin Cities pie. 

While the menu isn’t sprawling, it’s cohesive and comprehensive. (In other words, if your kids are feeling picky, there are burgers, tacos, and a pepperoni pizza.) It suits the small space, and it feels personal to the couple, who, Ann says simply, love working hard, putting out appealing plates, and giving folks in their neighborhood a nice place to spend the evening. 

The result is a cozy corner nook that welcomes tons of regulars; she knows, because she greets everyone at the hostess stand, where she estimates she recognizes maybe 60% of the folks who come in on a given evening. 

“Over the years, we’ve just kind of figured out how to do everything ourselves and only have a handful of people with us, really good people to work with,” Ann says. They’re open just five hours at a time, five days a week. That’s the schedule that works for their small staff, and it seems to suit guests just fine.  

La Mesa is the kind of neighborhood gem that’s rarer and rarer—small, familiar, and embedded in the neighborhood, where you’ll see the same faces in the kitchen, and maybe even at the table next to you. 

“There’s that feeling of: We’re actually doing this for our friends and neighbors,” Ann says. “When people walk out, they walk by the kitchen, and they’re like, ‘Thanks,’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah, great, we’ll see you next week!’”

La Mesa
Address: 230 Cedar Lake Rd., Minneapolis
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.

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