Green Line Checklist: Caspian Bistro to Playoffs Sports Lounge
We crossed Highway 280. And somehow this felt like a major accomplishment. Perhaps not on the level of say a manned mission to Mars, but still we’ve made it through something like 50 places, so forgive us our minor celebration.
We’re also encroaching on the University of Minnesota. The change is becoming palpable. We hit our first sports bar and a restaurant named, not coincidentally, U Garden.
We also crossed the Minneapolis border somewhere along the way. Though, we’re not sure exactly where. Some say that the border runs right through the KSTP building (splitting the TV and radio sides of the house). But we’re not surveyors. We’re just your average restaurant spelunkers. And we have 20 more joints to go. So let’s get on with it. — M.C. Cronin
ALL 15 GREEN LINE INSTALLMENTS: 88 Oriental Foods to Thai Cafe, Ha Tien Deli to Hook Fish and Chicken, Family Lao Thai to Cheng Heng, iPho by Saigon to Los Ocampo, SugaRush to PaJai, Pinoy Fusion to The Best Steakhouse, Johnny Baby’s to Ngon Bistro, Flamingo to Trend Bar, Midway Pro Bowl to Big V’s, On’s Kitchen to Tracks Bar and Grill, Caspian Bistro to Playoffs Sports Lounge, Mesa Pizza to Stub and Herb’s, The Dubliner to Ippindo Ramen, Silhouette to Little Szechuan, and T-Rex to Campus Club (the end of the line).
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The Green Line Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot between the University Avenue and Rice Street intersection in St. Paul and the Green Line terminus on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue, this tour will be warts-and-all.
2418 University Ave SE, Minneapolis
Stadium Village Station
The owner of Caspian Bistro unsheathed a kebab skewer that looked something like a small flat sword with a wooden handle and used it as a pointer to show us the geographical area on the map that generally makes up the Near East.
He then held up the skewer and explained to us that this was the primary form of cooking in the region and that the word “kebab” actually derives from an ancient word meaning “burn.” The stainless steel blade cooks the meat from the inside, while the coals and fire char it on the outside.
At the end of his mini educational seminar, the owner jotted down a list of items we should order from the menu. We took our list and were seated at a table in the dining room.
It’s a large, comfortable room with brick walls, wood floors, and arched ceiling. Paintings hanging along every wall were like snapshots depicting the faces and culture of the Near East. They looked like traditional oil paintings until a closer inspection revealed they were actually framed sections of intricately worked carpets. Like a Velvet Elvis except, you know, classy.
The marketplace is chock full of exotic delights. There are multiple varieties of feta, a dazzling array of olives, and urns filled with nuts from various Near Eastern countries. And of course, the owner was happy to give us a culinary tour of his deli case while imbuing us with fascinating facts. (Did you know that some almonds are actually apricot seeds? Neither did we.)
It is clear that the owner is serious and passionate about the food he offers at his market and restaurant. And he’s on a mission to educate people about Near Eastern culture and cuisine. According to his sign, he’s been at it since 1986. That’s a lot of mini educational seminars. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
(At least) half the fun of Caspian Bistro is the remarkable Near Eastern grocery store that dominates the eastern half of the restaurant building. Filled with everything from rose-petal preserves to exotic flatbreads to Sri Lankan teas to massive baskets filled with nuts to pastries and sweets from Armenia, Turkey, and beyond, this is one of the most enjoyable ethnic specialty markets in the state. It may also pack the most bang for the buck, as it’s only a little more than two half-aisles big, but each shelf groans under the weight of intriguing merchandise.
With that said, the restaurant itself promised Persian flavors, and it delivered in spades. Our Chelou Kabab Soltani ($17) was comprised of a skewer of kubideh (ground meat formed into an undulating, kebab-length meatball) and pieces of kebabed beef tenderloin. Both were rich in flavor, delicate in texture, cooked thoroughly but not overcooked, and kissed with just the right amount of char.
Similarly excellent was Zereshk Polo ($17), skewered and roasted chicken breast served on a bed of barberry-laced rice. If you haven’t had barberries, you’re in for a treat — they’ve got some of the tart power of cranberries in a teeny-tiny package, and they’re a lovely complement to roasted meat. They’re also visually charming, little ruby motes amid the rice.
The Caspian Special Soup ($6) contained lamb meat and three kinds of beans, but it was surprisingly uniform — and soothing — on the palate. We savored this as an accompaniment to the salad and bread, both of which were similarly understated and well-executed. And our cherry iced tea was a tremendous treat. The house-brewed tea was properly strong, and the cherry component arrived as a tiny glass beaker of cherry syrup that could be sprinkled — or ceremoniously dumped — into the tea, as the diner wishes. — James Norton
Deep Fried Goodness
1601 University Ave W, St. Paul
Prospect Park Station
If you find the rat before your order is up, you get a free dessert on your next visit. Thankfully, it’s just a toy rat. But this contest gives you some idea of the restaurant’s sense of humor.
Of course, you’d expect any restaurant that offers deep-fried Twinkies and cookie dough, to have a sense of humor about it. After all, the logo is a smiling golden puddle of hot, bubbling fryer grease. Fun!
As the name suggests, the primary concept here revolves around food you can coat in batter and drop in a fryer. There are deep-fried chicken wings, deep-fried tacos, deep-fried mac and cheese, and … er … panini (not deep fried for some unfathomable reason).
Aside from a few jokey signs on the wall (including a tongue-in-cheek illustration of a pair of Twinkies with the words “Never Forget” above them) and a menu handwritten on brown kraft paper rolls behind the counter, there’s not an overwhelming amount of charm or character here. This probably stems from the fact that it’s a relatively new space in a relatively new building. So you get all that new construction feel without the charming scratches and dings of a well-used space. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Our review of Deep Fried Goodness from late 2014 was none too kind. We called the two panini we tried “among the most appalling sandwiches we’ve ever experienced.” We’re sad to say that the panini situation hasn’t improved. Our Shredded BBQ Chicken Panini ($7.50) tasted of bottom-of-the-barrel barbecue sauce and acrid onions.
That said, we thought our Jerk Wings ($6 for 6) were quite decent, with a crispy, heavily seasoned exterior concealing tender, flavorful meat.
An order of Cajun Fries ($2.50) packed a mild but acceptable load of heat and tasted freshly cut (as promised on the menu). And our deep-fried Ground Beef Taco ($2) was just a few feet short of tasting precisely like its Taco Bell equivalent. If the meat had been just a bit more tender and intensely flavored, it would’ve gotten there. Not that that would be anything to brag about.
Dessert was a mixed bag. Our Fried Twinkie ($3) and Fried Cheesecake ($4) both suffered from tasting much like their breading, and little like anything else — it’s clear that the Scotts knew what they were doing when they decided that the dense, gooey, richly flavored Mars Bar was the right thing to fry up for dessert. Along those lines, our Fried Cookie Dough ($3) was enjoyable, progressing from sweet fried batter outside … to dough cooked to the point of being a cookie … to considerably softer, more raw-ish, warm dough in the interior. — J.N.
2725 University Ave SE, Minneapolis
Prospect Park Avenue Station
It looked as if a wedding reception might break out any second. There were swoops of sheer white fabric draped across the ceiling. There was satiny, white-and-golden, tasseled fabric on the windows and wrapped around support beams. There was even a long head table perched upon a platform overlooking the dance floor.
After some of us wondered aloud whether the place was actually setting up for a wedding, those who had been to U Garden before swore to us that this was how it looked all the time.
It’s a cavernous space. Even with a significant portion devoted to the buffet, there are still almost ridiculous amounts of room left for tables and chairs upon which to chow down.
Filling the space on one wall was a sprawling picture of the Great Wall. Small family photos of trips to China were tucked into its frame. It was hard not to think of this as a sort of living memorial to the homeland — an ongoing reminder to the owners’ children and grandchildren of their roots. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Upon our arrival, our waitress urged us to try the buffet (“Still plenty of food left!”). We considered it, but decided that the mere existence of a sheer mass of hot food was not necessarily an encouraging reason to eat said mass. Instead, we chose the illusion of control offered by ordering from the menu.
Our experience at U Garden was frustratingly similar to our meals at many other middle-of-the-road Chinese-American restaurants. Much of what we ordered (the Chicken Fried Rice, $7.50; the Chicken Subgum Chow Mein, $8) was bland, soggy, underseasoned, and without much merit beyond a depressing familiarity.
We went out on a limb to try the Seafood Crabmeat and Fishmaw Soup ($15), but what we got tasted like a swampy rendition of egg drop soup — creamy, sure, but fishy, and not particularly compelling.
But our Walnut Shrimp ($18), positioned as it was at the top of the “Chef’s Specialties” section of the menu, promised more, and it really delivered. The shrimp were tender and lightly breaded with a strongly lemon-flavored fried coating that brought a lovely taste and texture complement to the sweet meat of the seafood. The accompanying broccoli, while plain, was perfectly steamed and pleasant. As a whole, it’s a dish we’d eat again and recommend.
If only there were some secret sign on long menus like this that pointed to the Walnut Shrimp and its ilk — dishes cooked with a skill and passion otherwise hidden amid the dense underbrush of utterly forgettable food cliches. — J.N.
2425 University Ave SE, Minneapolis
Stadium Village Station
If we told you we went to a Chinese restaurant housed in an old Baker’s Square, you’d probably have a pretty strong idea of what to expect. You’d likely picture a place with slightly run-down, repurposed suburban decor serving mediocre, Americanized Chinese food — as if they stopped serving pie and pancakes one day and started serving egg foo young the next.
Get that image right out of your head.
Sure, from the outside, Tea House retains that distinct Baker’s Square silhouette. But the interior is something else entirely. Rooms and walls and windows are divided and adorned with Chinese-style wooden screens and floor-to-ceiling partitions. There are intimate elevated booths. Walls are painted by washes of light that fluctuate in color as you dine. Seriously, if we’ve been to a restaurant on this checklist that has been more of a contrast from outside to in, we can’t remember it.
Our waiter was a natural-born salesman. When we asked if we missed something good in our order, his eyes widened and he began listing menu items. Kung Pao Chicken? “It’s number one! So good.” Szechuan dumplings? “Oooh, you’ll like. It’s number one.” Szechuan Green Beans? “Number one. Very popular.”
After he proclaimed every item in question to be number one, we began to wonder if we were getting railroaded. But after putting down as much as our stomachs could handle and then honestly considering picking up the plates and licking them clean for good measure, we realized that our server wasn’t trying to inflate our bill at all. The food is actually just number one. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We let our stomachs run away from us at Tea House. The food depicted on its beautiful menu was so nicely photographed and charmingly described that instead of our usual conservative sampling, we ended up ordering something close to a full meal — for seven people.
Broad strokes: We tried two kinds of dumplings (Shanghai Pork and Szechuan), Kung Pao Chicken, the green beans, Scallion Pancakes, the Beef Roll, Tea Smoked Duck, and Scalded Chili Noodles. Quality ranged from adequate (the duck, $15, which sported a nice smoky flavor but could have used a bit more fatty richness and / or an appropriate sauce) to exceptional — let’s talk about that right now.
We didn’t particularly want to order the Kung Pao Chicken ($14), as it’s a throwaway dish at most Chinese restaurants — syrupy, one dimensionally hot if hot at all, most distinguished for having a reddish color but no real flavor. The Kung Pao Chicken at Tea House, ordered at the waiter’s urging, made all the other versions we’ve tried taste like blurry photocopies of the real thing. Where to begin? It had a great kick, yes, but the kick was complex — both spicy hot from chilis and numbing hot from the application of Szechuan peppercorns. It had a real depth of flavor supported by lovely notes of ginger. There was a sweetness present, but it wasn’t out of balance, and the chicken itself was cooked properly rather than parched indefinitely until dry. Served on properly cooked white rice, it was a potent and seductive dish, each bite offering subtle variations on a theme.
Our House Beef Roll ($6) was a crisp, rolled-up piece of bread evocative of an Indian paratha, surrounding a tender, surprisingly cinnamon-kissed meat filling. We’d never tried anything like it, and it went down extraordinarily well with our group.
Our Shanghai Pork Buns ($7) split the group. Their exteriors were beautifully crisp, their meat-filled interiors a bit gummy and lightly vinegar flavored. Those of us expecting the soft warmth of dim-sum-style pork buns were thrown for a loop; those of us who didn’t much care for those buns thought these a significant improvement.
The Scalded Chili Noodles ($7) were a hit. The house-made noodles were extremely delicate and tender, and the chili flavor that powered them was super potent without being overwhelming or unpleasant. Similarly delicate-yet-fierce were the Szechuan Dumplings, $7, which presented like housemade ravioli packed with sour heat.
And our green beans ($7) were superb, with a crisp, fresh flavor drenched in soulful umami.
Across the board, we found the food of Tea House to be compelling in the way few menus are — the flavors bold, the presentation beautiful, the overall effect both dazzling and comforting. — J.N.
Playoffs Sports Lounge
2501 University Ave SE, Minneapolis
Stadium Village Station
Playoffs Sports Lounge lives up to every expectation you might have for a bar named Playoffs Sports Lounge.
You’ve got your TVs playing sports; you’ve got your table-toppers advertising drink specials; you’ve got your sports-themed paraphernalia on the wall; you’ve got your classic rock soundtrack playing in the background.
And yet, even for a sports bar, it’s feels like something is missing. It’s oddly generic. Like one of those celebrity endorsement TV commercials that didn’t get the NFL’s permission to use real team names and logos so they put Brett Favre in a generic green-and-white jersey vaguely reminiscent of the Packer’s colors. Sure, it’s still Brett Favre, but something feels off.
But hey, if your primary measures of a good bar are plenty TVs and cold beer, then Playoffs is a home run / a hole in one / a slam dunk / [insert other sports cliche here]. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Burgers, pizza, and sandwiches: The Playoffs menu sticks with the tried-and-true themes of American bar fare, but without the finesse needed to sell these foods to non-inebriated customers. Our Piehole pizza ($17) was topped with a combination of pepperoni, Italian sausage, green peppers, Parmesan, mozzarella, and mushrooms, but the toppings blended into a mushy mess of blandness, the crust was insubstantial and flavorless, and the sauce was a total nonfactor. A zesty, vibrant sauce could have somewhat righted this ship, but instead it was missing in action. This is what we’d term a “40-percent pizza” — worse than 60 percent of the pizzas out there, but not so bad as to cause real offense.
Our Chili Cheeseburger, on the other hand, was a truly exceptional dish. Served with the top of the bun upside-down, on a slope, and sporting a slow-moving smear of cheese and chili, this burger had an aftertaste that one diner compared to “edible body odor.” It was a bad, bad kind of funky that lingered and intensified after every bite. The undistinguished, semi-dry meat patty paled in comparison to the off-note that dominated our experience, but it would’ve been a serious knock against a garden-variety burger. Its appearance alone sent our photographer into a paroxysm of laughter. All in all: a Hindenburg-level, “oh the humanity!”-level disaster.
The fries at Playoffs were just fine, though. A little underseasoned, but just fine.
We kind of wish that they hadn’t been out of the bread pudding dessert named for O.J. — but we’re also kind of glad that they were. — J.N.