Central Avenue Checklist: Al Amir Bakery to Fair State Brewing Cooperative
One of the more interesting things that has happened on this crazy odyssey is that we’ve had to change our idea of what constitutes acceptable social graces. In short, we’ve disposed of them.
Our outings are almost animal. We reach across the table and grab food off one anothers’ plates without asking permission. We pull things apart with our bare hands and lick our fingers and go back for more. We take bites where others have left teeth marks and slurp from straws that four others have puckered. We leave restaurants with meals half-eaten out of self-preservation (when you’re visiting five restaurants in one go, you can’t possibly eat an entire meal at every one).
This is not delicate work. Germaphobes and etiquette enthusiasts need not apply.
We’ve adapted our behavior in other ways, too. One of us has taken to carrying a pocketfull of plastic forks and knives in case we find ourselves in a situation where we need them. And the funny thing is, we have. What once we would’ve found strange, we now find ingenious. Leave it to Central Avenue to continue to broaden our worldview with every visit. — M.C. Cronin
Read the other installments of the Central Avenue Checklist here: Paradise Biryani Pointe to Flameburger, Dong Yang to Big Marina, New York Gyro to Jimmy’s Pro Billiards, El Tequila to The Heights Theater, The Chilean Corner to El Taco Riendo, the Bakery Edition, Hill Valley Cafe to Ideal Diner, Al Amir Bakery to Fair State, Pico de Gallo to Arcana Lodge, Karta Thai to Tattersall Distilling, Little India to 612 Brew, and Narobi to the End of the Line.
Al Amir Bakery
2552 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 1.2 miles to Broadway Street
The man behind the counter peered at us skeptically. Between his imposing build and his dark eyes, he had the appearance of a man who didn’t lose many arguments. He was more stoic than unfriendly, but our attempts to engage him kept falling flat. It was clear we wouldn’t be getting the same enthusiastic reception from this guy that we did from the baker on our previous visit.
We ordered kebobs and shawarma, and the man went directly to work at the grill. It wasn’t long before ribbons of flame where whipping up and curling over the edges of our kebobs. The smell of charred meat began to fill the small space.
We could feel the heat of the coals from the other side of the counter, where we were standing. Yet this man worked the grill with his bare hands, turning the skewers occasionally, angling them here and there. In his deft hands, the skewers began to look more like full-size magician’s swords.
When the food was charred to his liking, he lifted the skewers off the flame and ran them backward through a clenched fist, pushing the meat off onto our plate in one fluid motion.
For his next trick, he tossed a piece of flatbread directly onto the hot coals. Any hair on our knuckles or forearms would have been singed away instantly, but somehow this man had developed an immunity to intense heat.
The shawarma came in the same warm Iraqi pocket bread we had tried before. When we brought the warm, diamond-shaped sandwich to our mouths for a bite, it looked something like a giant smile. And after taking a bite, smile we did. — M.C.
“We’ve already covered Al Amir,” we figured. We came. We saw. We ate a bunch of baklava. It was unprecedented for us to return to a place we’d already written up, but dinner at Al Amir really did seem as if it would be something other than a bunch of sweets and bread.
And boy, was it.
The process of cooking our kebab dinner ($11, with salad and bread) made for an engrossing show that featured swords of meat and tomatoes charred over leaping yellow flames. The result was a profoundly satisfying dinner that was an intoxicating mix of tender and charred, deep with spice-marinated flavor. On a personal note: I’ve eaten in Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan, and this took me right back, without a single false note.
Our schwarma (a mere $6, one of the best deals on the street) was similarly rich in flavor and satisfying char, and was served in a chewy, almost sourdough-like Iraqi pocket bread that puts the other pita sold around here to shame.
For dessert we tried something new, a Day-Glo orange kunafa topped with spun shredded wheat, flavored with mild cheese and rosewater, and tinted with a liberal application of food coloring. For all its flash, we thought the kunafa was surprisingly mild, and we were initially underwhelmed. But its pleasant mellowness and contrast in texture grew on us. And then we had more. And more. Until it was gone. — James Norton
2513 Central Ave. NE Minneapolis | 1.2 miles to Broadway Street
The menu is bulky, laminated, and chock full of colorful images of the offerings. The seating area is large and open with easy-to-wipe-down surfaces. Directional signage is clear: “Order here,” “Take-Out Waiting Area.” They have a fountain-drink station where you can make your own flavored Coca-Cola concoctions.
Holy Land is one of the pioneers of the Middle-Eastern food scene in Minneapolis. It has become an institution of sorts. And authenticity is something many institutions struggle with. Perhaps that struggle is at work here.
For the most part, though, Holy Land hasn’t lost its way.
Aside from a few distinctly American items, the menu is still a bounty of authentic Middle-Eastern fare. Plus, you can still shop at the busy deli and grocery attached to the restaurant. This is where it all started. And you can still buy Holy Land’s fresh hummus and pita to take home. Not to mention just about anything else under the Mediterranean sun. — M.C.
We weren’t a hundred percent fair to Holy Land — we’d eaten at the homespun and soulful Al Amir minutes earlier, so the Perkins-like menus and industrial feel of the Holy Land deli juggernaut was destined to feel a bit corporate by contrast.
And, indeed, we found the beef kebab koobideh ($14) to be bland and lacking texture compared to the world-champion version across the street, although it’s worth noting that the portion size was generous, and the dish was by no means unpleasant.
And our beef and lamb schwarma ($14) tasted one-dimensional, the charred bits of meat more accurately describable as a salt and salt schwarma.
The salvation of our meal was the wood-fire-roasted garlic rotisserie chicken dinner ($13 for a half bird plus salad and hummus). As we found in an earlier Heavy Table assessment, this is rotisserie done right — deep, deep flavor, crispy-but-delicate skin, and tender meat. As long as Holy Land keeps up the quality on this dish, we’ll be back again and again. It’s a treasure.
A final note: Holy Land’s side salad was a bright, refreshing mix of crisp lettuce and mostly olive-powered flavor and acid. — J.N.
Sabor Latino (warning – website is awesome)
2505 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 1.1 miles to Broadway Street
Other than a cook, a waitress, and a guy waiting for takeout, we were the only people in the restaurant. When a restaurant is empty at the dinner hour, it generally doesn’t bode well, but we’ve had our expectations proven wrong many times before on Central Avenue. So we hopefully took a seat.
A telenovela played on a flatscreen TV in the corner of the room. And while a telenovela wouldn’t necessarily be our first choice for diner entertainment, in this case it felt natural. Besides, we were just happy the place wasn’t dead silent. We’ve been down that path before (at Shalimar). Silence is a death knell.
They clearly take their telenovelas seriously at Sabor Latino because the flatscreen is mounted so it delivers an optimal viewing angle for patrons. Unfortunately, this also means patrons have to duck under it to get through the restroom door. But hey, trade-offs, right?
While we waited for our food, it was difficult not to be drawn to the TV. Soon, we found ourselves entranced by a commercial for a 17th-century torture device. Or it might have been some kind of extreme corset made of Lycra. Whatever it was, the women wearing it looked impossibly happy having their internal organs rearranged by this contraption.
It’s moments like this (and avenues like Central) that make you so keenly aware of how vastly different the cultures are that make up our country. And in some ways how similar we all are when you get right down to it. — M.C.
“It’s Better With the Sauce!” isn’t the official slogan of the Ecuadorean restaurant known as Sabor Latino, but its ownership may want to consider getting it printed on the menus. We were surprised upon arrival to be given two massive bowls of thick green sauce — more than a normal human being could process in a month — but the rationale soon became clear.
Our Balon de Verde ($4.50) was a massive, Andre the Giant’s fist-sized ball of green plantains and cheese. It was also exceedingly bland. But once we spooned the pungently garlicy, brashly spicy hot aji salsa onto it — delicious!
The Chaulafan ($12) was a massive honking platter of seriously bland chicken and shrimp fried rice, lacking even the characteristic one-two punch of salt and MSG that generally makes this stuff edible. But spoon on some sauce — whammo! Instant depth of flavor and heat!
And our Plato Montañero ($15) featured a sirloin steak that was flat, chewy, and sadly lacking in flavor — well, you know where this is heading.
Other notes about this fascinating mountain of food: the beans were superb (properly cooked and richly flavored) and worked wonderfully with the rice and fried egg.
The sausage was gamy, stuffed with discrete chunks of fat, and it was somehow more pork-tasting than pork. This funky power was enough to completely put off one of our crew, causing him to mention it, apropos of nothing, at the next two restaurants we visited.
And the chicharron (fried pork rinds) was thick to an unholy degree, a combination of overly chewy and hard-fried that we couldn’t handle. If you dig it, we salute you. It wasn’t our thing.
Our coconut frappe drink, the name of which we can’t seem to recall, was a blast of richly textured coconut bits, some sugar, and milk. We were all initially put off by the pronounced texture, and we all took a second pass at it and discovered that we really enjoyed it. — J.N.
2405 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 1 mile to Broadway Street
There was an immense painting of a woman in traditional Mexican garb riding a rearing horse and waving a Mexican flag in a dry landscape with cacti in the foreground. The walls were a golden adobe. The lighting was dimmed to cantina levels. Bouncy Mexican music was playing in the background.
All in all, Adelita’s seemed a fine, comfortable place to sit down and enjoy a decent Mexican meal. Not to mention a cold margarita or two.
At least our server was enthusiastic. We asked him about the industrial-strength lighting rig, speakers, and smoke machine tucked in the corner. He told us they do karaoke until 2 a.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. And judging by the setup, they don’t just do karaoke, they overdo karaoke. It looked as though they even open an extra bar for the occasion.
If it’s a Mexican-themed party you’re after, Adelita’s might be a great place to celebrate. But if you’re looking for good Mexican food, well, read on … — M.C.
The half-legit, half-ersatz atmosphere of Adelita’s gave us an instant surge of hope that this would be a place we could get world-beating chicken fajitas, a cultural crossover dish that is supremely enjoyable when done with care. We were wrong. We were dead wrong. The fajitas’ chicken was a bizarre flat rectangle of meat sliced into regulation-sized strips, lacking the browning, internal flavor-via-marinade, and texture that defines good fajita meat. The so-so, somewhat slimy onions and peppers accompanying the fajitas ($12) are almost not worth mentioning, so flawed was the meat. But we’ll mention them. They weren’t great. The fajita platter did, it should be said, sizzle upon arrival.
The pork tamale on our combination plate ($12) was deemed decent, but it wouldn’t give El Taco Riendo or (particularly) Valerie’s a run for the money. The plate’s chicken enchilada was described by multiple tasters as “congealed,” although at least one of us found that quality nostalgia-inducing and enjoyable. And the chicken taco was carried by the classic onion-and-cilantro flavor combo — the bland meat was neither a help nor a hindrance.
We also tried the Tacos Nopales ($8), and thought the cactus filling to be a bit celery-like and gelatinous.
Our mango margarita has some tequila soul and legitimate fruit flavor, but its standard lime counterpart was a blast of plastic-bottle, super-sweet sour mix and little else.
Adelita’s saving grace? We got a strawberry licuado, and it was light, refreshing, and perfectly sweetened. — J.N.
Fair State Brewing Cooperative
2506 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 1.1 miles to Broadway Street
Portraits of the large community of co-op owners hang on clipboards along one side of the space. In the photos, they smile or give the thumbs up or toast the camera with half-full beer glasses or make funny faces. They all seem happy to be owners of a beer co-op. And who could blame them? It is a beer co-op, after all. One of the first of its kind in the country. What’s not to be happy about?
The space is predominantly brick and wood and stainless steel. The high, white ceilings have artfully designed, beer-themed posters dangling down here and there. Blocks of color pop throughout. There are a couple of long, communal tables running through the middle of the room. There’s bench seating along the walls. And of course there’s the bar. At the end of the bar, two big windows look into the brewery.
It is essentially one cavernous, modern gathering space. Clean and minimalist. In theory, there is nothing particularly wrong with this approach. But in execution, it was a bit cold and calculated: The metal chairs were kind of uncomfortable; the tables felt higher under our elbows than tables should; the lights were turned up to “airport runway” brightness. We missed some of the warmth you get from a great neighborhood bar.
In the end, though, these are minor whines. The place was buzzing with people. (And a few of the people in the place were buzzing, too.) Besides, a tap room should be all about the beer. — M.C.
We hate to tar a brewery’s output with a broad brush, because generally speaking, so much individual thought and care goes into each beer produced. But here it goes: We ordered four seemingly different beers at Fair State Brewing Cooperative, and we found them all to be exquisitely balanced, really refreshing, and thoughtful. There, we said it.
At a time when so many breweries go heavy — with hops, with smoke, with flavors — Fair State’s hand is deft. Take, for example, their Lactobac 6, a smoked sour wheat beer ($4 for a half-pint). Any of those three descriptors could lead to flavor overload, but we found the sour to be gentle and in balance and the smoke to be whispered, not shouted.
Lactobac 3 (a sour stout, $4 for a half-pint) is one of our new favorites. This malt-forward, mildly but convincingly soured beer is a downright fascinating glass for any beer geek who likes to think while they drink, and it’s quite tasty to boot.
The brewery’s hop lager was just plain crisp — light with a gentle hoppy bite and a lovely clean finish. There was no snakebite astringency here, nothing to strangle the palate and cut the session short.
And we found Fair State’s Hefe to be similarly skillful, light and fresh, with a bit of a banana kick to the beer’s fresh-faced finish. Across the board, we liked what we tasted at Fair State and particularly liked what we tasted for summer — these are beers that, regardless of their complexity, you can drink and feel refreshed by. — J.N.