Central Avenue Checklist: Little India to 612 Brew
Dire Dawa was no more. Shuttered. Out of business. Chairs stacked on tables. Tables pushed in corners. Corners gathering dust. The only sign of life, a dim light emanating from a lone beverage cooler inexplicably still plugged in near a register doomed never to ring another order. In the introduction to the Central Avenue Checklist we wrote of challenging ourselves to stop passing those restaurants we always pass on our way to those we already know. Dire Dawa was that restaurant for us. We’d gone by it so many times. Always curious. Imagining what we might be missing. Thinking we need to stop there sometime before it’s gone.
Dire Dawa was the restaurant that inspired this whole crazy journey. It was supposed to be one of the last we visited. An ideal way to wrap things up.
What happened between the time we started the Checklist and now to cause Dire Dawa to close? Who knows? What happens to any of these places that mysteriously disappear? Mediocre food or service, unreliable help, unforeseen circumstances, hapless business decisions? Or is it simply that not enough people challenged themselves to give it a shot?
Whatever the answer, one thing is certain. If you see a place that interests you, go. It may not be there tomorrow. Another hard lesson learned from our faithful teacher, Central Avenue. But there is a silver lining. In an effort to salvage something from our night, we decided to duck into Little India again. Maybe we’d missed something on our scouting excursion so many months ago. That’s when we found a bakery case we hadn’t seen before.
Goodbye, Dire Dawa.
Hello, Little India.
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.
Little India International Market
1835 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | .7 miles from Broadway Street
If you’re ever in need of a pot the size of a small car, you will find it here. Along with stacks upon stacks of 20-pound woven bags of rice in more varieties than you knew existed. Idli rice, sona masoori rice, ponni boiled rice, ponni raw rice, ambemor rice, and basmati rice grown in the foothills of the Himalayas (an important distinction if the marketing on the outside of the bags is to be believed).
There’s a case filled with exotic frozen entrees and hardly a Lean Cuisine in sight. They sell brightly colored spices in bulk plastic bags at exceptional prices. The typical grocery-store aisle markers for bread and chips have been replaced with hand-painted signage for “Naans & Chapatis” and “Paratha” and “Sweets and Pan.” And they don’t just have a meat market, they have a “Super Meat Market” with lamb, goat, beef, chicken, and fish.
Everywhere you turn, you’re faced with foods you can’t pronounce, can’t understand, can’t prepare, and yet somehow desperately want to buy. (We still regret not buying something called Fatafat, which seemed to be a candy-like digestif.)
In keeping with the theme, the bakery case was filled with unfamiliar, oddly shaped, and brightly colored items, none of which were labelled. In order to get across which items we wanted, we had to point through the glass and hope the tong-wielding man behind the counter guessed right.
We ate out of a to-go container on the brick window ledge outside the market, returning inside to buy paper towels when it became clear from our sticky fingers and faces that eating these things — whatever they were — required them.
The dessert case at the Little India market on Central Avenue is a challenge we had never really faced before — kheer and gulab jamun at Indian buffets marked the limits of our experience, and this case went much, much deeper than that.
Yes, kheer and gulab jamun were both present, but so were … yellow tube-like things. And beige diamond things. And chunky square brown things. And … well, more things than we could really assimilate. Our purchasing process was helter-skelter — “two of those … green cubes? And some of those orange … pretzel things, please?
That said, this is what the Central Avenue Checklist is all about — it’s about mixing it up, trying new things, and occasionally being utterly out of your element. We paid $11 for a whole pile of things, and with apologies for our ignorance, here’s what we thought:
The flat tan diamonds — which we later found out were the cashew-based kaju katli — were mellow and nutty with a bit of greasiness and a marzipan-like density.
The green pistachio halwa squares? Well, they had a cream-cheese-meets-pistachio vibe going on, and kind of an herbal fudge thing going on too — they started mild and then came on a bit more strongly.
The yellow, kind of tube-shaped things sharply divided our crew. They packed a super-syrupy, anise-inflected herbal sweetness of great intensity, and had a dairy-at-the-edge sort of lactic power that disturbed or enchanted tasters depending upon their points of view.
The orange piped-out-pretzelish dealie-boppers known as jalebi had a great crunch to them, and a pastry-meets-candy-meets-cheese kind of flavor that was, to put it mildly, difficult to place. Of everything we sampled, these were perhaps the farthest from our knowledge. We liked them.
The yellow-orange blondie looking things were a bit chalky, and a bit oily. They recalled the flavor of those “I Luv U 2 Much” conversation hearts that help contribute to the awfulness of Valentine’s Day.
And the gulab jamun were great. The doughnut-y pastry chunks were dense but tender, and while the syrup they were soaked in was mind-blowingly sweet (as is traditional) it was also pleasantly flavored with a touch of cardamom and rosewater.
In short: a tremendous amount of food for thought.
Kim’s Vietnamese and Chinese
1824 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | .5 miles from Broadway Street
We opened the door to discover that there was not another soul in the place. Just nine empty tables and us. Had we walked in without an agenda to eat here, we could easily see ourselves silently backtracking, hoping to leave before anyone in the kitchen realized we were here.
In the end, we were glad we didn’t.
Our host / server seated us. She recommended a few items, none of which sounded like anything we’d ever order. So we promptly ordered them.
Then we tried not to watch America’s Got Talent on the big screen TV while we waited for our food to arrive, which is hard to do when there’s nothing else in the restaurant to distract you.
We attempted to strike up a conversation with our server about the, shall we say, interesting businesses next door: Central Sauna Bath and Gene’s Barber Shop.
She was friendly but oddly tight-lipped about the whole thing. She told us she didn’t know anything about the businesses except that they’re owned by the same family and that they’ve been around for 40 years. Then she told us Kim’s has been around for 25 years. So in 25 years, they’ve learned nothing about the sauna massage right next door? Hmm. This was starting to sound like an interesting story.
Or maybe we were just searching for a distraction.
Fortunately, our food arrived and we quickly forgot about “America’s Got Talent” and sauna massages.
One of the running themes of our checklist must be the confounding nature of our own expectations. The emptiness of the dining room at Kim’s had us braced for the worst, but the kitchen brought forth some flavors we’d return for.
The restaurant’s Sauteed Beef over Fried Potatoes ($9) is why we’re doing what we’re doing with the checklist. We would never have ordered it save for our waitress’s recommendation. When the dish arrived, it was mystifying — a pile of circular fried potatoes (from soft and yielding to perfectly crispy like potato chips), some gravy, some sauteed onions, and some tender bits of beef. We couldn’t stop eating it. It was a strange and tasty and comforting but surprising dish.
Our Pho Dac Biet ($8), a pho stocked with beef, beef brisket, and meatballs, was underseasoned, but had an intriguing, semi-sweet, cinnamon-kissed broth going for it.
Despite their simplicity, our Cream Cheese Wontons ($3.25) were some of the best we’ve had in town. They gave every indication of being homemade — irregular in shape and size, they were crispy as the dickens, mellow, and mild.
And our Hot and Spicy Chicken ($8.25) looked like it was going to be a flavor and / or heat-bomb, but was neither hot nor spicy. It benefited greatly from smearing with the red pepper paste available tableside, but it’s fair to say that if your hot and spicy chicken is only hot and spicy after the diner applies her own hot and spicy sauce, it’s actually somewhat bland and characterless chicken.
Diamonds Coffee Shoppe
1618 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | .5 miles from Broadway Street
To enter Diamonds you walk up a set of utilitarian concrete stairs into the corner of a two-story brick warehouse. This is the Thorp building, a crazy labyrinth of hallways and stairs and brick walls and wood floors and freight elevators and artist spaces that seems to go on forever. You could easily get lost in the Thorp and no one would find you for weeks.
A directory confirmed our suspicion that this was, in fact, the same building that housed Tattersall Distilling (which would explain their Central Avenue address). When we asked our barista if there was some way to get to Tattersall from the coffee shop without leaving the building, she nodded assuredly and said, “Yes.” When we asked how, she said, “I have no idea.” That about sums up the Thorp.
Diamonds is a charming mishmash of a few separate spaces. The main area is all about the counter service: ordering, paying, and picking up your food or drink. Walking by the counter you reach a tiny alcove with an arched brick ceiling, a booth and a small table. Take a sharp right and you enter a old vault complete with a huge metal door at the far end.
There are a few tables here as well. It makes you wonder what valuable items occupied this vault before the “migrant workers” (as one freelance, laptop-toting patron deemed himself) who occupy it now. Our guess would be diamonds. But we might just be romancing the name.
Continuing through the vault door, you enter an open hallway with more tables and seating scattered about. Finally, there’s a space across from the counter-service area with couches and chairs. It has a distinct living room feel. This is where we ate.
Diamonds says it’s a coffee shop (actually a “coffee shoppe”). But for a coffee shop, they go to extraordinary lengths with their food. We were told they make almost everything in house — with just two panini grills handling the bulk of the cooking duties. Even the smoothies are a labor of love. When we asked how they were made, we were told they use only the simplest whole ingredients including “raw frozen fruit, apple juice, and a crack cocaine bonding powder.” They didn’t lie. We’ll probably be back for another. And another. And another. But we could stop anytime. Really we could.
We didn’t have any real expectations of Diamonds as a food-and-drink destination. We’d been a few times in the past, but just to enjoy the shop’s eclectic layout and a coffee drink or two. It was therefore a real treat to discover a couple of really outstanding items and a general atmosphere of easygoing enthusiasm.
The restaurant’s Spicy NFK* Club Wrap was delicious — a blend of tomato, bacon, ham, three cheeses and the titular sauce, which packed a creamy, pineapple-inflected heat. There was a real Thousand Island dressing thing going on with this tortilla-wrapped savory sandwich, and we dug it.
Our Pumpkin Spice Latte was a far sight better than the ubiquitous Starbucks sugar bomb. While not an Anelace-level, third wave, painstakingly crafted coffee gem, it was smooth, roasty, mellow, and soothing, without being either oversweet or burnt-tasting. The pumpkin flavor was just a gentle whisper — not a thick, syrupy party pooper.
Our Burrito Deluxe ($7) was more quesadilla-like than burrito-ish, a byproduct of the cafe’s panini press-driven kitchen set up. But we liked it. It was substantial in an eggy way, and not at all greasy. This is a burrito that won’t mess you up.
And our Black Bean Burger ($8) didn’t give the stellar veggie burger at The Mill NE a run for its money, but it at least made it jog. It was a bit dry, but there was a really earthy, comforting natural bean flavor at its core.
Perhaps most surprising was our Strawberry Smoothie ($4.50), which was absolutely lovely — gently sweetened without being aggressive about it, a ton of real fruit flavor, and a mellow, enchanting aftertaste that immediately made us thirst for more.
*Not Fucking Ketchup, if you must know.
945 Broadway St NE, Minneapolis | On Broadway Street
Spyhouse is a paradox.
The space is impossibly gorgeous and meticulously constructed. Every detail has been considered, and no expense was spared. It is coffee shop design elevated to high art.
This is the kind of place at which you can expect to pay a lot of money for handcrafted coffee drinks served by aloof baristas while quietly being appraised by bearded hipsters skulking behind laptop screens. In short, it’s the kind of place you want to hate.
But here’s the paradox: It works.
From the minute you walk in, you absolutely long to be here. There’s just something about the vibe. The welcoming embrace of warm wood surfaces everywhere — exposed joists and rafters, rustic slatted walls, hardwood floors and solidly built tables. The gentle glow of lighting set to precisely the right dimness. The ambient buzz and low murmur of patrons entering, ordering, and then huddling in groups to chat, or peeling off individually to find a quiet nook or cranny to settle into and begin tip-tapping away on a laptop.
And there are multitudes of nooks and crannies to settle into. A long bar, a row of low two-tops, a large community table, hightop counters, bench seats, and window rails. You can get comfortable here.
And many, many people do.
Finding a spot can be difficult, but when you do, you may never want to leave.
The Spyhouse chain is something of a Minneapolis institution, and the quality of the roasting and brewing is evident in what they serve.
Our Spygirl (a lavender honey latte) was really quite good — the lavender flavor came through clearly without being overwhelming or perfumy, and the overall sweet-roasty-bitter balance was spot on.
Our pour over coffee had a great aroma, but a flavor that was right on the edge between “bright” and “too bright,” depending upon who was tasting it.
And our cold brew was mellow, mild and intensely refreshing — a great choice on an evening that may well turn out to have been this year’s last real flourish of summer.
945 Broadway St NE, Minneapolis | On Broadway Street
There’s nothing wrong with 612Brew. But there’s nothing particularly right with it either.
That’s the problem.
Don’t get us wrong. If you’re in the vicinity and looking for a place to hang out for a few craft beers, it’s a fine choice. It has the concrete floors, wood beams, exposed bricks, brew tanks, and keg stacks you expect from a taproom. In a nod to the 612 name, there are some nice pieces of local art hanging around the bar. There’s even a giant mural created by Adam Turman. The service was fine. The patrons seemed to be enjoying themselves.
It’s an okay joint.
But places that are okay can also be the most frustrating. We almost wish there was something we absolutely hated about it. Or that there was some other amazing thing worthy of notice about the place. Then we’d have something to talk about.
But no. We didn’t have an awful experience. Nor did we have a great one. It was just fine. And that’s okay.
612 is a brewery that knows exactly what it’s doing when it comes to brewing — it’s making a few straightforward variations on a theme, altering the color and name of each beer to give the impression of diversity while delivering a reliable, straight-and-narrow, generic “craft brew” experience in each glass. We tried a flight ($11) of all four of the beers on offer and emerged with a reasonably short set of notes.
From the somewhat hoppy, medium-bodied Seven Heads “Imperial Pilsner*” to the somewhat hoppy, medium-bodied Six American Pale Ale to the slightly hoppier, somewhat more in-your-face Unrated Rye India Pale Ale to the slightly mellower, less challenging Zero Hour Black India Pale Ale, all of 612’s beers delivered moderate flavor, a real hops presence, and a clean flavor profile. Missing from the menu are beers that offer funk, malt, sourness, infusions, a sense of place, a strong connection to an ethnic tradition — in short, the actual stuff that makes the craft brew scene so interesting.
*Seriously, why make an imperial Pilsner? What’s wrong with making an actual Pilsner? Once you’ve brought the ABV up to 7.9 percent and hopped the beer up, haven’t you discarded the refreshing affability that makes Pilsner such a nice style in the first place?