Green Line Checklist: Midway Pro Bowl to Big V’s

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

According to our schedule, we’re just over halfway now. So it feels appropriate that we’ve finally reached Snelling Avenue.

Snelling feels like a natural divider. Like a river or a mountain range. Except in this case, there’s no actual border. We’re still in St. Paul. But we’re making real headway and closing in on Minneapolis.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

We’re at that point on a road trip when you get about halfway and you pull over for gas, climb out of the car, stretch and shade your eyes with your hand and look down the road toward your destination, and somehow the wind just seems to be at your back.

Appropriately, we spent the majority of this outing at and around the Midway Shopping Center.

Midway? That can’t be a coincidence. — M.C. Cronin

This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, Becca Dilley, James Norton, Ted Held.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

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.)

central-corridor-funders-logoThis 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.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Midway Pro Bowl
1556 University Ave W, St. Paul
Snelling Avenue Station

It’s barely a sliver of storefront in the Midway Shopping Center. Just enough space for a sign and an entrance. Judging from the outside, you’d think it was a four-lane bowling alley, at best.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Then you open the door and the illusion is shattered. You immediately descend a staircase into a cavern of lanes. The place is huge. It’s the Taj Mabowl. There are so many lanes, it begs the question of whether there are really that many people who bowl.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Based on Midway Pro Bowl’s continued existence, the answer, apparently, is yes. But the night we visited, there was hardly a soul in the joint. Thirty-two lanes, and not a rockslinger in sight.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

The snack bar next to the shoe rental was deserted (it’s open only on league nights), but we got the sense that we didn’t miss much. When we asked the shoe jockey if the burger was worth coming back for, his considered pause before speaking told us all we needed to know.

Fortunately, the bar was open and offered a small selection of frozen pizzas. Our bartender offered to dress up a cheese pizza with some sliced green olives from the bar — a little trick she devised, and one we plan to repeat on our next bar pizza.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

But the real gem in the place was the pro shop — a glassed-in area beside the lanes full of medieval-looking equipment especially designed to commit various acts of torture to bowling balls including drilling them, spinning them, and baking them to extract oil from deep in their pores. These devices even have cool superhero-esque names like “The Reviver” and “Custom-Matic” (which is a special bowling ball drilled to look like a globe of Swiss cheese for the purpose of finger measurement).

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Based solely on the lineup of balls awaiting service here, we’d say the owner of the pro shop appears to be a master of his craft. There was a collection of at least ten balls that belonged to a single bowler (an arsenal that would make Genghis Khan jealous). If a serious bowler like that trusts this guy with his equipment, we’re pretty sure the casual bowler could do worse that visit this pro shop. — M.C.

*** FOOD NOTES ***

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Heavy Table was only so-so on the Lotzza Motzza Brew Pub Pizza ($12) when we tried it at home, but in what we presume is its natural habitat (a bowling alley in St. Paul), we warmed to it. Maybe it was the beers that accompanied it or the fact that the waitress dressed up our pie with green olives from the bar, sliced thinly and dropped onto the pizza before it was baked, but we thought this humble, tavern-cut pizza would go pretty well with a few frames of bowling. — James Norton

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Golden Gate Cafe
1464½ University Ave W, St. Paul
Snelling or Hamline Avenue Station

A woman came in, and the hostess greeted her as if she were a close friend. “Hi! How are you doing?”

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

“Really well.”

“So good to see you. [grabbing menus] Who else is coming tonight?”

“Amy and my mom and … [dramatic pause] … the new baby.”

“Ooooh. The baby! How old is she now?”

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

This interaction tells you that a) Golden Gate has regular customers, b) these regulars span multiple generations, and c) the people at Golden Gate treat them like family.

This was such a far cry from our other experience with a Chinese-American restaurant on University that it was almost disarming.

Don’t get us wrong, Golden Gate is nothing fancy. Just ten or so tables and a little counter at the back where you can grab take-out orders and pay. But the interior was clean and cheerful. Happy pop music played in the background. The space was bright and was adorned with framed prints of Chinese paintings, lanterns, statuary, and figurines. Even our server was pleasant and efficient.

We don’t ask for — or even expect — too much from a Chinese-American restaurant. But when it’s done right, with even a small amount of care, it can be an easy and comforting place to be. It’s hardly a wonder Golden Gate has been open for 36 years. — M.C.

*** FOOD NOTES ***

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Close your eyes and picture strip mall American Chinese food.

You just saw Golden Gate Cafe, a quintessential example of the form. A small, well worn dining area, Asian bric-a-brac throughout, a menu with all the predictable favorites, and fast, friendly service. Overall the food was decent, if you temper your expectations and are prepared to be excited about rice. The crab rangoons ($5.50) were a home run. Hot and crisp, with a fresh onion taste, they were filled with a cream cheese / crab mixture that was generously portioned in favor of the (probably ersatz) crab.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Combination Plate ($8.50) with egg foo young, chicken chow mein, and chicken fried rice is their stock in trade. Greasy, almost slithery egg foo young was the weakest member of the trio. Abundant celery and crispy noodles were the highlights of a chow mein that was topped with a heap of chicken that looked and tasted suspiciously like sliced deli meat. The chow mein and egg foo young were smothered in the same gelatinous, translucent brown gravy that helped earn strip mall fast-food Chinese its dubious, though in this case undeserved, reputation.

The chicken fried rice was spot on: chewy, salty, and properly wok-sizzled.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Largely because the dish itself was inconsistent, we were divided on the Kung Bo with beef ($9.70). The exterior was warm, but there were pockets on the inside that were hot enough to melt glass. That, in combination with a few pieces of leathery beef, indicated that a microwave was involved in the cooking process. We all liked the crunchy, fresh carrots and celery. No one liked the canned mushrooms. The same brown gravy was present here as well, this time spiked with dried chilis and pepper oil. Like the fried rice, the accompanying white rice was excellent: not overly sticky or glutenous — individual grains of rice with a nutty bite. Fried or steamed, Golden Gate Cafe does excellent rice. — Ted Held

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Peking Garden
1488 University Ave W, St. Paul
Snelling or Hamline Avenue Station

An authentic — truly authentic — Chinese restaurant tucked into the corner of a shopping center. Where did this come from? And how did we not know it exists? It’s been here 30 years for crying out loud. But you could’ve told us it opened just last week, and we might’ve believed you. That’s how surprised we were by Peking Garden.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Walking in, we were astounded at first by the sheer size of the place. The tables seemed to go back forever. Like into the next block. There were two-tops, four-tops, family style round tables, and cozy booths. There was a stage and a dance floor for events. There was an entire section crowded with huge buffet islands. And there were enormous, gurgling fish tanks filled with live lobsters and seafood.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

But it wasn’t just the size that was surprising; the restaurant was also hopping with patrons. Families and friends — many of whom appeared to be Chinese — gathered around tables and passed food to each other and looked as comfortable here as in their own homes. One of the few unoccupied tables was covered with a mountain of leafy greens that were being sorted and separated by an older woman who went happily about her work, oblivious to the crowded tables around her.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

If you’re looking for authentic Chinese cuisine, Peking Garden awaits in the Midway Shopping Center just around the corner from its more Americanized — though still legitimate in its own right — cousin, Golden Gate. — M.C.

*** FOOD NOTES ***

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

There is something uniquely charming about the Peking Duck at Peking Garden. You can have your whole duck as a stir fry over rice; you can have it as a soup; or you can have it fried crisp and served with hoisin and greens in a pancake. It’s $31 if you would like just one incarnation of duck; a bit more for two, and a mere $36 to have that duck dressed up in three different outfits for your enjoyment. With a mere $5 separating duck one way from the full Three Tastes incarnation, we can’t understand why anyone would ever do anything less — it’s a blast to taste this elegant meat in three radically different presentations in quick succession.

The unifying quality of each dish was its simplicity: duck bones with a bit of meat in a rich broth with greens for the soup; duck meat and a few brightly flavored sauteed vegetables for the stir fry; crispy, skin-on duck with hoisin and scallions and cilantro for the pancakes version. Everything clean, everything light on its feet, nothing greasy or overly sweet.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

We also enjoyed the pageantry of the whole steamed walleye ($38), which arrived dressed with ginger and scallions, swimming in an umami-rich broth. Like the River Monster at Thai Garden, this is a dish that wows you visually before it charms you with its mild, mellow flavor. The bones were numerous, so chew carefully.

Peking Garden’s approach to food was the antithesis of the gloppy, oversweet, gut-wrenching norm that we’ve come to expect of mediocre Chinese-American cuisine, choked as it is with the likes of sugary sesame chicken and freezer-to-microwave egg rolls. Instead we tasted dishes that were clean, light, and accented with properly prepped greens. We look forward to returning. — J.N.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Hot Rods Bar and Grill
1553 University Ave W, St. Paul
Snelling Avenue Station

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

In case the name didn’t clue you in, Hot Rods is indeed a car-themed bar. The interior design — which seemed to be a recent remodel — is heavy on the garage aesthetic. Diamond plate-aluminum paneling and accents. Close-up pictures of chrome car grilles. Wallpaper runners with patterns of checkered flags and beer bottles and cars. Nascar shaped lights illuminating a couple of pool tables in the corner.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

A sign on the wall advertised a drink special called a “Quiet but Quick.” Something about the name just spoke to us. When you’re faced with an alcoholic concoction with a name that essentially translates to “Fast, Easy Drunk,” you have a decision to make. You either play along or run away.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

We approached the angular bar in the center of the room and asked the bartender about the drink. She told us it was her own creation and that blackberry brandy was one of the primary ingredients. We had no choice but to play along.

We didn’t find any food the night we visited, but Hot Rods does host a potluck dinner on Sundays from 6 to 9 p.m. that has all kinds of potential. Or maybe that’s just the Quiet but Quick talking. — M.C.

*** FOOD NOTES ***

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The clean (as in operating room clean) Hot Rods offered a decent tap selection from the local giants of microbrew (Summit, Surly) in addition to a full complement of macrobrews on tap and out of the fridge. Our crew rode the fence: a few bottles of Bud and a Surly Hell or two. The bartender mixed up her “Quiet but Quick” special shot for us, it was an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink blend that tasted sweet but not treacly so, and slightly medicinal, with a hearty dash of bitters. They do a Sunday pot luck, and you can either bring a dish or buy a ticket to eat. Sadly, we were there on a Wednesday. — T.H.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Big V’s Saloon
1567 University Ave W, St. Paul
Snelling Avenue Station

The bar spans the length of a small airport runway straight from the front of the room almost all the way to the back. Big V tells us it’s the longest bar in St. Paul. We don’t know what official organization is in charge of measuring these things, but from the looks of it, we weren’t going to argue his point.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Besides, arguing with Big V, didn’t seem like it would end well for us. Case in point, when we asked if he was the owner, his answer was “Yes. Unfortunately.” He’s a big guy with a gruff exterior and sawed-off wit earned from 36 years of running a bar. Crack his shell, though, and Big V has a big heart, we suspect. Exactly the kind of guy you’d want serving up strong drinks and frank advice in a dark bar.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

As for the rest of the place, it’s filled with worn wood, buzzing neon, and the musk of booze and beer. That long bar is nicked and chewed the way a real bar should be. There’s carpet tacked to the knee rail underneath and a matching carpet mural on the wall depicting a martini glass and a wine glass.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

There is even a stage in the back of the room, where bands perform. An old menu board advertises a Limburger Cheese Sandwich for 15 cents and a Sardines Special for 60 cents. Neither is available anymore, but you can get a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos if you’re hungry.

A small sign behind the bar pretty much sums the place up. It’s titled “Vicks Bar Rules.” And they are as follows: “Rule #1: Bartender is always right. Rule #2: If bartender is wrong, see rule #1.” — M.C.

*** FOOD NOTES ***

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

It seemed that the things to drink at Big V’s were the Hamm’s, which came out ice cold in pint glasses and cost us less than $3 a pop. They weren’t really complicated — not a lot of barrel aging or cross-brewery collaboration or neighborhood hops or wild yeast — but they were refreshing.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

We would’ve loved to order from the vintage and thoroughly retired menu hanging on the wall opposite the bar — we’ve only ever seen a Limburger sandwich like that one in Monroe, Wisconsin … which happens to be the only place in the world the funky stuff is made outside of Europe. — J.N.

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WACSO and M.C.Cronin

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3 Comments

  1. Dave Cox 06/22/2016 Reply

    Peking Garden was in Mpls by the U until 10-15 years ago.

  2. What about the Trend Bar?…

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