Central Avenue Checklist: Hill Valley Cafe to Ideal Diner
This time out we visited a vintage store and a golf course, a butcher shop and a co-op … And oh, yes! a restaurant, too. This is the kind of eccentricity we’ve come to expect from Central Avenue. But even after so many visits, Central still managed to throw us few surprises, thus proving the theory behind the checklist: Forcing yourself to go to businesses you may otherwise never have tried — or even known about — just might lead to an amazing discovery. Like the one we found in a foil-covered stockpot on the counter of Valerie’s. But more on that later.
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.
Hill Valley Cafe
3301 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 2.5 miles to Broadway Street
There’s a rack of vintage mugs for sale by the register. Buy one, and they’ll fill it with a free cup of joe. On our visit the choices included an original Disney Pinocchio mug, a old Norwest Bank mug, and a retro mug with the word Motel printed in 1960s type.
While we waited for our food, we wandered through the store and found a couple of additional tables where patrons can enjoy their coffee among the knickknacks and novelties. There is even a rustic outdoor patio with touches such as rusty iron garden ornaments and bull horns hanging over a garage door.
As we ate, we noticed a small sign offering homemade pesto by the jar. When a restaurant sells jars of something it serves, you expect it to be good. The pesto was beyond good.
Hill Valley Cafe is kitschy and comfortable and still manages to deliver on the promise of good, old-fashioned, tasty food. It feels as if you stumbled into someone’s small-town home and were invited to stay for brunch. It’s the neighborhood cafe you wished was in your neighborhood. — M. C. Cronin
Nothing about the Hill Valley Cafe suggests that you’re walking into a full-service breakfast joint, but the menu is well-rounded and thoughtful, and the cooking backs up the promise of the text. Hill Valley’s Biscuits and Gravy ($7.50) had integrity — if they were in any way prefab, we were fooled. The biscuits were simple, drop-type rounds, but they had real flavor, and the gravy was bursting with peppery comfort.
Our Breakfast Burrito ($8.50) was a big ol’ bruiser, packed full sausage and ham and cheddar, but mostly potatoes, making it something of a giant, loaded potato stuffed within a tortilla. Unless you row crew or are on a swim team, you can safely plan to split this with a friend.
But the surprise star of our meal was the Breakfast Club Sandwich ($8.50), which looked as forgettable as they come — bacon, greens, an egg, pesto, ciabatta, etc. But the cafe’s house-made pesto was this sandwich’s not-so-secret weapon. A lot of pesto has an almost acrid burn — from too much garlic — or an unpleasant grittiness. This stuff was balanced, and profoundly light and herbal, making the whole sandwich taste bright and savory. This is a sandwich we won’t forget. — James Norton
2219 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | .8 miles to Broadway Street
On an initial scouting visit, we had almost scratched Valerie’s off our list because it appeared to offer nothing in the way of a deli or hot food. But just before walking out we spotted a giant, shiny stockpot, covered with aluminum foil, sitting on the counter next to the register. A sign underneath indicated it was filled with tamales. We immediately put Valerie’s on our list and couldn’t wait to come back.
But on our return for this installment, the stockpot was missing. Our hearts sank. We asked the Spanish-speaking woman behind the register about the tamales as best we could. After a few seconds she seemed to comprehend and yelled something in the direction of the butcher counter at the back of the store. Moments later a small man appeared hefting a shiny stockpot almost as big as he was. He heaved it up and dropped it with a thud onto a makeshift cardboard trivet on the front counter. Then he smiled at us, wiped his brow, and returned to the back of the store. We were in business.
Valerie’s offers pork, chicken, and cheese tamales. We ask for one of each. The woman behind the register peeled back the foil top, releasing a white plume of hot, spice-scented steam. She reached into the cavernous pot with a pair of long tongs and began pulling out tamales one by one. After picking through a few, she began to look confused, unsure which tamale was which. Eventually, she relinquished her tongs to another woman, who was clearly the tamale identification expert.
She pulled out each tamale examining it from end to end with the poise and confidence of a surgeon. When she had correctly sexed all our tamales, she wrapped them in paper towels and placed them in a brown paper bag.
The miraculous manner by which these tamales were produced for purchase accurately foretold their awesome flavor. All of them had a tender, sweet, corn-driven base note, unlike many commercial tamales, which are essentially flavorless beyond their fillings. Their price ($2 a pop) was modest, but each of the three varieties we tried was extravagant when it came to flavor.
The pork tamale was spicy-hot in a wonderful, serious way. It also possessed a real depth of seasoning that gave it a soulful, rich appeal — this was no one-trick pony. The chicken tamale was as comforting as a hug from grandma. My notes just say “warm, happy, mellow,” and that’s how it made us feel.
And the cheese tamale was packed with strips of soft, milky queso accented by jalapenos that gave the whole package a delightful chile relleno kind of profile.
Any of us would have gone back for any of these tamales, and each variety had its own champion or champions who liked it best. We thought the tamale at El Taco Riendo was really good — and it is — but we thought these backroom tienda specials were yet another notch better. — J.N.
1314 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | .2 miles to Broadway Street
Twelve or so rear ends hung over the edges of twelve or so round stools lined up at the main counter. A few of the patrons belonging to these appendages turned to size us up as we entered. Others paid us no mind and continued to sop up runny egg yolks with bits of buttered toast.
The entirety of the seating arrangement at Ideal Diner includes these stools, and just behind them, room for about eight more people at small ledges under the front windows. You can eat at these ledges or wait for a seat at the counter.
Ideal is supposed to be a greasy spoon. It certainly smells and sounds like one: sausage sizzling, bacon fumes wafting through the room, silverware clinking, toast browning, coffee being slurped. A grease stain here or there wouldn’t look out of place. But the stainless steel back splashes and vents were shiny, and the orange-and-yellow ceiling tiles were bright and vibrant. Even the grates for the air vents were spotless. Nothing is gummed up with grease or dirt. Someone clearly cares about the place enough to keep it clean.
While we waited for our food, we watched the server and the cook (the only cook) go about their business. The working area is approximately the size of a walk-in closet, but the two danced around each other as if they had choreographed the whole thing, which surely they had over years of working in such close proximity.
Our server told us she had worked here for more than 25 years. She said another server bought the place a few years back, when the owners threatened to close. It was a clever way for her to save her job. It also happened to save a 65-year-old-plus Minneapolis institution.
A sign above the cooking surface claims that the Ideal Diner is “Where regular people feel special and special people feel regular.” After our visit, we can’t argue with that. — J. C.
The Ideal Diner’s name, decor, history, and location all suggest a certain throwback sense of quality and all-American simplicity, and the place delivers on that promise.
The diner’s Biscuits and Gravy ($6) tastes heavily of chicken stock, and we view that as a feature, not a bug — the finely crumbled sausage and smooth, peppery gravy made the simple, off-the-rack biscuits texturally consistent and soothing. Nothing fancy here, but we don’t demand anything fancy from this dish either.
The restaurant’s self-touted Corned Beef Hash ($7.75, above) is an evenly chopped mix of meat and potatoes that won plaudits from our crew for its proper seasoning — this is a dish that’s often salty enough to choke a donkey.
Best of all was the single pancake ($1.50). We’re devoted fans of the thin and chewy flapjack (see Al’s Breakfast for a stellar example of the form), and Ideal Diner does a fine job with its rendition. It’s not bready in the slightest, and carries enough sweetness so that you don’t need to use more than a smidge of syrup. — J.N.
Columbia Golf Club
3300 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 2.5 miles to Broadway Street
The Columbia Golf Club runs along a four-block stretch of Central Avenue between Columbia Parkway and St. Anthony Parkway. And where there’s a golf club, there’s usually a clubhouse serving drinks and food.
On a previous recon mission, we confirmed that the club did indeed have a clubhouse with small bar and restaurant. We talked to a kid working there who seemed pretty sure about the burgers. So we came back for an official visit.
The main building is a long Colonial with classic, white-shake siding, a green shingle roof, and a stone foundation. Plush, but approachable. The cars in the lot were not the Cadillacs and Land Rovers you might expect at a private club. These were Ford pickups and sensible sedans parked by their owners, not valets. This is a public golf course, after all. While some of us might have felt like outsiders, uninitiated in the rules and rituals of golf, we didn’t feel unwelcome.
We ordered the specialty drink — something called the Eagle — and since it was happy hour, our server gave us a double shot of vodka. It was easy to see how one or two of these would be refreshing after eighteen holes.
We also ordered a burger, fries, and a brat. We noticed a breakfast sandwich on the menu, and after some convincing, they agreed to make one for us even though it was outside the breakfast hour.
We sat outside and waited for our food to be ready. On the patio, we enjoyed the view of neatly manicured, rolling hills. Golf carts buzzed by. There was the clack of golf balls being struck. A fountain bubbled. It was all very serene. Almost too serene. We found ourselves wishing Rodney Dangerfield would roll in wearing brightly checked slacks, spouting off loud one-liners to liven things up. — M. C.
It was happy hour when we arrived at the Columbia Golf Club, so we ordered a Prairie Vodka Eagle ($8) and got a double Eagle. This anodyne mix of ice, mojito mix, and soda is a drink to cool down with, and that was fine with us.
Our roller-heated bratwurst ($5) was about as run-of-the-mill as they come, despite the enthusiastic endorsement of the counterman. The sausage itself had a bit of snap and flavor but the dry, almost certainly ancient and preservative-rich bun it was served on sapped whatever guilty pleasure the thing might have provided.
The less said about our cheeseburger ($6) the better.
The surprising hero of the day was the club’s $4.50 bacon breakfast sandwich, a lazily assembled collection of everyday ingredients so un-self-conscious as to be brilliant. Ordinary toasted bread. Low grade cheddar cheese. Thin, food-service bacon. Surprisingly tender and peppery scrambled eggs. Add them together and what do you get? The Carl Spackler of sandwiches. This is one of Central Avenue’s secret breakfast value triumphs and – hurrah! – you can have it for dinner. — J. N.
Eastside Food Co-op
2551 Central Avenue NE, Minneapolis | 1.2 miles from Broadway Street
The whole hot-food bar was a lowly affair. Stale shells. Stainless steel tubs of fillings. Sad looking toppings. In the hot food case sat one lonely chicken chimichanga in a cardboard bowl. All in all, it didn’t bode well.
Still, food co-ops can be wonderful places, filled with people with a passion for wholesome foods. So we really wanted to love it. We were determined to give it an honest-to-goodness try. Besides, taco bars have never been known for their appetizing appearance.
We approached the register, where we were greeted pleasantly by the cashier, who weighed our food and gladly accepted our payment of nine bucks per pound. Then we sat on the nice little patio outside to enjoy our meal. — M. C.
Unfortunately, as much as we wanted to, we didn’t enjoy our meal.
A taco bar that vends by weight struck us as either brilliant or a prelude to tragedy — after all, if the tacos are delicious, surely $9 a pound is a fair price for glory? Unfortunately, it took only a cursory inspection of the cluttered, tired-looking setup to realize that these tacos weren’t going to put El Taco Riendo or Maya Cuisine under any kind of threat.
Tempeh is supposed to be dry, but the downright gravel-like texture of our taco’s tempeh sucked what little joy the dining experience might have provided right off the plate along with the moisture. Our other two taco fillings were equally uninspiring: clumpy, underflavored beef that was unredeemed by watery salsa, and adobo sweet potatoes that were a tolerable, starchy side, but nothing more.
Our $7 chicken “chimichanga” — we’re using quotes here, because we’re reasonably sure that deep frying, not baking, is the process that transforms a burrito into a chimichanga — was better than our tacos, but still fell short of even conventional Fun Mex cuisine. The dour, dried-out exterior could only be partially salvaged with liberal applications of sour cream, and while the interior meat was pleasantly moist and tender, there was little in the way of flavor to make the stuff compelling.
Eastside Food Co-op is in the midst of a big renovation, and that’s good news — with some thought and effort, the evening hot bar offerings could easily be pushed up to (or at least towards) the healthy-and-appetizing fare you’d find at Seward Co-op or the Wedge. — J. N.