East Lake Checklist: El Sabor Chuchi to The Rabbit Hole
This time around the Checklist took us down the rabbit hole, both figuratively and literally. We experienced everything from home-cooked Mexican seafood to traditional Somali cuisine to Korean-inspired street food. We went from a scruffy convenience store deli with dented shelves and wobbly tables to a decked-out restaurant space dripping with designer touches. We were among immigrant families and metal-heads. There’s no telling where the checklist will take us on any given night, but one thing is certain: The ride is worth the price of admission. — M.C. Cronin
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The East Lake Checklist is the third Heavy Table illustrated travelogue to explore a major gastronomic thoroughfare in Minneapolis and/or St. Paul. The East Lake Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue and our 72-restaurant series about restaurants on the Green Line. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot on East Lake Street between 35W and the Mississippi River. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from Visit Lake Street. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue and the Green Line, this tour will be warts-and-all.
“From the river to the lakes, visitors and residents can shop local and be social on Lake Street. More information at VisitLakeStreet.com.”
El Sabor Chuchi
717 E Lake St
Depending on how you look at it El Sabor Chuchi is either a small market with a sizable deli attached or a sizable deli with a small market attached.
A couple of shelves flanking you on the left as you walk in offer a random selection of convenience items like tomato paste, Takis chips, sardines, Cup Noodles, batteries, and dark chocolate for making mole. On the right, there are coolers stocked with drinks, produce, and dairy items along with a bakery case displaying a selection of pastries and breads.
The deli counter at the back of the store features the kind of order-by-number picture-board menu we’ve grown accustomed to around these parts of East Lake. Just be warned. The pictures are deceptively out of scale (more on this below).
We ordered, and sat at a table beneath a rather detailed instructional flyer on performing the Heimlich maneuver. Reading about choking safety did feel the tiniest bit ominous while we waited for our bone-in chicken to arrive, but it also led to an interesting debate on restaurant safety regulations. Fortunately, no one needed to have read it, and — bonus — we are all now thoroughly prepared in case of emergency. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The first thing you need to know about the Churrasco Plate ($12) at El Sabor Chuchi is that it isn’t as big as you expect it’ll be. It’s about 50 percent bigger than that. I ran out of room in my notebook trying to record everything that arrived on it, but the short list includes a steak (pounded flat), a couple of eggs, rice, beans, thick cut fries, avocado slices, plantain fritters, and salad. If this stuff were mediocre, this would still be a pretty good deal, but the avocado was ripe, the beans surprisingly delicate and beautifully seasoned, the thick-cut fries clearly house-made and top-notch. The steak and eggs and the rest? Not bad. The value prospect of this humble plate of food is towering.
The Quarter Chicken ($7) is a little more standard issue, at least for this part of East Lake Street, which is to say it’s cooked properly, robustly seasoned, tender on the inside, and nourishingly hearty. Ordering a roast chicken (by the whole, half, or quarter) on East Lake Street is pretty much a bulletproof move, like ordering a slice of pizza in Brooklyn. It’s a cost-effective, no-risk way to get a filling, tasty meal. — James Norton
Marisqueria Mar y Tierra
730 E Lake St
Both “Open” signs were illuminated, yet the front door was solidly locked. But being street-hardened checklist veterans, we would not be deterred from our mission. We waved through the glass door and caught the attention of a man inside eating with two children. Success.
As it turned out, this man and his two kids were helping run the place. So we were it for customers. Whether it was just a slow night or we were there early, we’re not sure. Perhaps the karaoke advertised on the awning brings more people in on the weekend.
We opened our menus and were immediately greeted with two ripped pieces of white tape covering pictures of two prominent menu items. The word “NO” was scrawled on them in pen. We shrugged it off with a smile. We’ve been around the block a few times and encountered this kind of quirk at family-run businesses before.
A woman who appeared to be the matriarch of the family came over to help us through the menu. When we asked what specifically she thought we should order, she gave us a rundown of every dish. Either she believed that strongly in her food, or perhaps more likely, it was a misunderstanding brought on by the language barrier.
From our table, we could see the whole family — including the children — in the kitchen helping prepare our meal. While these independent restaurants do have idiosyncrasies like locked front doors and handwritten notes on the menu, they also serve real heart with every meal. And that’s no small accomplishment these days. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
It’s impressive — but maybe not shocking — that East Lake Street seems incapable of serving up a bad piece of chicken.
What makes less sense is that a seafood shop that we’ve never heard even a rumor of, difficult to identify from the street, and locked when we turned up for dinner — at 6:30 p.m. — offers one of the best spins on paella we’ve tasted locally in recent years. The Arroz Marinero ($18) is a mix of clams, mussels, steamed crab, shrimp, eggs, and vegetables, and it was all nicely prepared, the seafood mild and sweet, the mix of ingredients well-balanced.
Our other dish was equally enjoyable. The Camarones a la Diablo (with shells, or “con cáscara,” $13) were hot (as implied), but not devilishly so, and tasted firm and sweet. There’s something about shrimp with heads and shells on that’s encouraging to a diner. The closer these things are to a natural state, the further they seem from masses of flavorless protein decanted from 20-pound vacuum-sealed sacks.
It may have taken Mar y Tierra the better part of an hour to get our food to the table, but it turns out that real cooking takes time. — J.N.
818 E Lake St
There’s something about the shape of the space Hamdi occupies that makes us think this might have been home to an old-school “family restaurant” at some point. Think Curran’s or Perkins. Maybe it’s the way the entrance is designed for maximum people flow with a foyer flanked by two interior doors, one for coming, one for going. Maybe it’s the half-walls topped with lucite panels and brass rails that divide one side of the space into distinguishable sections.
It was interesting imagining what the place might’ve been like in the era when the Midtown Global Market was still a huge Sears store and catalog center employing 2,000 people. If it was a family restaurant, how might patrons in the 1930s react if you told them the kitchen would eventually be serving traditional Somali cuisine like roasted goat and chapati. Would it be shocking or would they view it the way we do, as a natural evolution — a family restaurant for a new generation of American families?
Hamdi seems to cater well to the growing Somali community. While it wasn’t exactly busy the night we visited, there was still plenty of activity. We could only imagine that there’d been a particularly busy lunch and early diner crowd because the walls and tables really could’ve used some attention from a wet washcloth. We don’t mind drips, splatters and smears on our table, as long as we made them ourselves. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The standout dish at Hamdi was the Chicken Steak ($12) — flat pounded chicken, elegantly spiced, served on a mountain of fragrant rice. The acrid taste of raw onion was aggressive, but it added interest to an otherwise serene dish. Thin slicing made it work.
The Chicken Legs ($12, with hummus), on the other hand, were not something we’d willingly revisit. They were funky and underseasoned. The hummus, though? Absolutely legitimate — creamy, light, full-flavored.
We found Hamdi’s goat ($15) mellow to the point of underseasoned, but pleasant enough. — J.N.
Salsa a la Salsa
920 E Lake St #155 (Midtown Global Market)
We’re seated under a painting of a married couple standing outside a Mexican village staring proudly into the distance. The woman in the painting wears a blue headscarf and cradles a swaddled baby in her arms. Her husband bears a wood staff and holds his hat to his chest in reverence. A mission-style steeple stands prominently in the background. If we aren’t mistaken (and we’re not), the painting is an allusion to the biblical tale of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.
But why, you ask, are we giving so much attention to this painting? Well, because the painting pretty much demands it. This thing is huge — basically life-size. It protrudes from the wall and encroaches awkwardly on the table below it (the one at which we were seated). It is undeniably the most prominent item of decor in the space.
But enough about the painting already.
The restaurant occupies one corner of the Midtown Global Market. Partial walls topped decorative iron panels, and plants in terra cotta pots surround the space, giving it an open-air-courtyard feel. Between the blue tile work, adobe textures, and the large arched entryway, it has a Mexican town square vibe. Almost as if the space is an extension of the painting.
(And you thought we were done talking about that.) — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is more than just a classic Western about a bounty-hunting scam gone wrong, it’s a helpful structure for mapping a confusing meal that goes in all directions at once. We’ll tackle the meal at Salsa a la Salsa in a cinematically evocative way, which is to say we’ll lead off with the potato flauta, one third of the Combo Platter #1 ($17). There’s not a lot to this dish, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s crunchy; it’s filling; it’s soothing; it’s simple, but that’s OK.
The enchilada part of the platter is even better, assisted greatly by a zestily assertive salsa verde.
Now, on to the bad. The house margarita ($6.50 at happy hour) split the table. Half thought it thoroughly mediocre, with an overly sweet “sour” mix, and the other half took personal umbrage at its very existence. Neither group would go back for seconds.
On to the ugly portion of the meal. Our chile relleno (part of the Combo Platter) looked like a deflated brown balloon and tasted only marginally better. The sauce was a thick coating of bland wetness that did little to accentuate the shrunken pepper within.
We wouldn’t have ordered the Chimichanga ($12.50) if we didn’t, in good faith, think it could be tasty. We’ve had some great chimichangas around here (see Saguaro), and plenty of fun ones, but this one wasn’t either. It was … damp. And that’s about it. In total: a lot of damp rice in a wet tortilla, with none of the crispy crunch that makes a chimichanga great, and drippy, flavorless cheese that contributed no particular saving graces. On the plus side? The guacamole on the plate was pretty good. — J.N.
The Rabbit Hole
920 E Lake St, #101 (Midtown Global Market)
A rabbit silhouette with a red neon heart marks the entrance. A sod rabbit hides along a grassy border that runs across the top of one of the booths. There’s a drawing of a rabbit with an eye patch on the front of our menu. A trophy rabbit head stares down from above one of the doors. Are you sensing a theme here? If you have an irrational fear of being trampled by a herd of bunnies, you might want to avoid The Rabbit Hole. Otherwise, come right in and enjoy.
The dining room was closed the night we visited, so we sat in the bar. Dark — almost black — stained wood and dim lighting set the mood. The playlist was hair metal. Mötley Crüe, Warrant, and a slew of other spandex-and-leather-clad bands laid down guitar riffs that chug-chug-chugged overhead while we chug-chug-chugged … er … sipped our craft cocktails.
If you missed the whole Alice in Wonderland reference in the name, you might expect a joint called The Rabbit Hole to be vegetarian. But no, there’s meat. Plenty of it. And as it turns out, the name that inspired the decor also inspired the menu. The food is a serious head trip. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We weren’t surprised that our meal at The Rabbit Hole was enjoyable; we’ve been digging their stuff (at Midtown Global Market and during their outings at the Minnesota State Fair) for years now. But however many times a given restaurant takes you somewhere wonderful, you can always feel gratitude that the place still has the magic.
Let’s work from weakest to strongest. The Off the Hook Tacos ($8) suffered from stale, dusty-tasting tortillas and unremarkable battered whitefish but were redeemed by a refreshing slaw and a legitimately hot jalapeño sauce.
Markedly better were the Carne K Town Fries ($11), a hubcap-sized platter of kalbi-style ground beef, truly powerful kimchi, pickled jalapeño, cilantro, avocado crema, and house-cut fries. Four hungry dudes with a well-rounded appreciation for balanced yet extreme flavors could be sated by this monster of a dish, which reminded us — in a good way — of a more finely tuned, Asian-American-flavored incarnation of the insanity that was Dorilocos.
Better still were the Wangs ($10.50), five crispy-crunchy double-fried chicken wings served in one of four sauces. We chose the Gochu Butter, which brought a grainy, deeply-spiced intensity of flavor and richness to these ambitiously powerful appetizers.
Cocktails are a strong point at The Rabbit Hole, and the restaurant has become known for its juleps. The Dae Chu Julep ($9) unites the bourbon-meets-mint profile of the standard julep with entirely fresh, date/black-walnut bitters thing that brings a funky fullness to this Southern favorite. It’s a weird spin on a classic drink, but it works.
We flipped out over the Miso Pot de Creme ($6), a dessert that brings a silky, funky, gorgeous natural butterscotch sweetness (based on maple syrup) together with a couple of fascinating accents: candied slices of orange and salty tuile crackers that offset everything sugary about this dish. This is a dessert worth fighting for. Order one for everyone.
Last but not even slightly least, the Barbacoa Fatty Taco ($9), which is a mischievously misleading name for a cocktail that is about as refreshing as they come. A barbacoa fat “washing” infuses some smoky richness into the blanco tequila that is the base of this margaritalike cocktail, and it helps keep the whole lime/agave/tequila/(mellow) habanero thing incredibly fresh without throwing it off balance. It’s surprisingly subtle and self-evidently smart.
The Rabbit Hole’s entire menu crackles with inventive fun, but the real magic is how well all that imagination gets transposed onto the plate. — J.N.