Green Line Checklist: On’s Kitchen to Tracks Bar and Grill

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

If you play Russian Roulette long enough, eventually you’re going to get the bullet. This was our bullet.

We try to maintain an objective and respectful point of view because we have a deep understanding that the places we visit are, for the most part, operated by decent, well-meaning, hardworking people. Our job is simply to recount our experiences.

But sometimes, there is just no way to overcome the awful. There is no new lens through which we can view things to make the night look any better.

Our best option at this point is to simply push on and muddle through.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Fortunately, the night started on a high note. — M.C. Cronin

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

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

On’s Kitchen Thai Restaurant
1613 University Ave W, St. Paul
Snelling Avenue Station

From the outside, it’s not much to look at. Just your basic, squat, stucco-and-brick building with an aluminum-trimmed red-shake roof. But we’ve been to enough places to know not to judge a book by its signage.

When we opened the door, a wall of sticky, humid heat took our breath away. Seriously, the ice water couldn’t hit our table soon enough. It was hard to imagine how the cooks could still be standing. But soon our bodies became acclimatized to the new, Southern-gothic-novel-inspired environment, and we had a chance to look around.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

With its black drop ceiling and a curtain wall separating the dining area from the kitchen and buffet area, the place is not going to win any interior design awards. But judging by the constant influx of patrons, the sheer number of tables occupied (virtually all), and the toppling stacks of take out orders piling up, a posh experience isn’t what people are looking for from On’s. They’re coming here for the food. And on that front, On’s was totally — and appropriately — on. — M.C.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

*** FOOD NOTES ***

On‘s Thai enjoys a glowing reputation on University Avenue, and the cheerful throng crowding its tables on a Tuesday night was pretty encouraging. But then we got to the food, and we really understood what all the excitement was about.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The least remarkable thing we ordered, spring rolls ($4.50), was quite good — an even distribution of ingredients, rice paper wrappers that held together without becoming gluey, and a lovely, piquant, flavorful sauce that turned a merely edible dish into a delightful one that was eagerly devoured.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Even better was the Haw-Muk ($7). We really enjoyed the ho muk (the more typical spelling) at Cheng Heng but On‘s version easily holds its own. This minced tilapia and coconut-milk red curry dish was creamy, rich, and blessed with an incredible funky depth of flavor and just the right level of heat. And as an appetizer, it was perfect — sharable so that none of us overdosed on this remarkable flavor bomb.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Our Pad-See-Ew ($10) was a classic, beautifully executed rendition of the dish. Mediocre pad see yews are a dime a dozen, a safe way for inexperienced diners to eat bland noodles and chicken. This pad see yew, on the other hand, had all the great contrasts that make Thai food so remarkable: sweet and sour, spicy and salty. Unlike in many renditions we’ve had, the noodles weren’t cooked to the point of falling apart; neither were they undercooked. They were perfect.

And our Beef Laab ($10) was a treat — bright, dense, and earthy, balancing funky flavors with a real kick of acid.

Between On‘s, Thai Cafe, and Thai Garden, we feel safe saying that University Avenue is the alpha and omega for Thai food in the metro, although we have to carve out an honored nook for Karta Thai (the original location) on Central Avenue. — James Norton

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Turf Club
1601 University Ave W, St. Paul
Snelling Avenue Station

The main room of the Turf Club was cordoned off by red velvet ropes. So we were forced to follow the stairs down beneath a brightly colored painted mural to the bar in the basement.

Now, if you’ve never been to the basement of the Turf Club, you’re in for a real treat. Unless, like any rational human being, you find clowns utterly terrifying.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Their gaunt white faces and red noses peered down from every corner. There were paintings of clowns. There were faceted glass chandeliers with clowns on every panel. There were porcelain clowns on the wall. Be warned, this place is known as the Clown Lounge for a very good reason.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

But truthfully, the clown theme isn’t so dominant that it’s all you notice. This is a solid bar in its own right. Wood booths line one side of the room. Vinyl padded booths line the other. Tables are scattered in between. The bar itself is smallish with a few stools for taking a load off. It’s a simple and comfortable place to toss back a few.

You might even forget the clowns are there. But they’re there. Oh, yes. They’re there. And they’re watching you. And there’s nothing creepy about that at all. — M.C.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

*** FOOD NOTES ***

Everything about the Turf Club’s relatively new menu looked to be on point. It was pretty simple (driven by burgers and the famous, apparently trademarked Diamond Dog), but everything had a bit of production hustle behind it.

And then the food arrived. Our Diamond Dog ($8) seemed to be carved out of meat gelatin — underflavored and with a texture that conjured up middle school hot lunch. The bacon it was wrapped in did little to add even salt, to say nothing of the delicious porky kick we were hoping for.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Our Jucy Lucy ($8) was woefully underseasoned. The cheese, internal and external: bland. The meat: bland. The bun: pretty good, to the point of overpowering its contents. The lettuce was probably the standout element in this sandwich, and that’s not a great thing. Drunk out of our minds, there would have been nothing about this burger to bug us, but sober as church mice, there was nothing about it to like. — J.N.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

JJ Fish and Chicken
1647 University Ave W, St. Paul
Snelling Avenue Station

The single most prominent interior design feature in the place was the ketchup stains on the walls.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

It’s as if someone came through, intentionally stripped the place of any character, and left behind just a bubble gum machine, a soda fountain, and few laminate booths (which would have been taken had they been able to pry them from the wall).

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

The next most intriguing thing here was a cooler filled with cellophane-wrapped desserts advertised as “Fresh Cake from Chicago” on a handwritten sign taped to the front of the glass. Frankly, we wished we hadn’t seen the sign. — M.C.

*** FOOD NOTES ***

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

While it’s surprisingly difficult to disentangle quality of food from quality of atmosphere, we did our best to give JJ Fish a fair shake from a gastronomic perspective. We paid $10.22 for two catfish fillets and four chicken wings, figuring it would give both sides of the menu a chance to shine.

Shine they did not. The best thing about the catfish filets was their temperature — hot, quite hot, right out of the fryer. The batter, while fairly crisp, lacked any distinguishing flavor; the fish didn’t have any of the lovely funk you associate with catfish and was generic to the point of invisible.

The chicken wings were, if possible, even less distinctive. The fries? Mediocre double fried nothings. And the Red Velvet Cake ($2.50) that was “fresh from Chicago”? Bone dry and made from a mix. — J.N.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Fortune Wok
1821 University Ave W, St. Paul
Fairview Avenue Station

There was a keyboard set up in the back corner for the owners’ children to practice piano. This was the first sign that the place was family operated. The next was that our order was taken by the owners’ kid who looked 14 or 15, tops. Another of their children, even younger, was working on what looked to be schoolwork or a drawing at one of the other tables.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

The building the restaurant occupies is worth investigating for the mural in the lobby. At first glance, it appears the wall is just an unplanned patchwork of tiny square tiles in assorted colors. But the longer we looked, the more it became clear the design was intentional. An abstract map of the Twin Cities began to reveal itself — with blue tiles representing bodies of water and variations of tan and brown representing city boundaries. It was like finding a treasure map hidden in plain sight. — M.C.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

*** FOOD NOTES ***

On the food front, we felt confident that no restaurant could touch the passionate negativity that defined our experience at China One. But Fortune Wok came within striking distance, bringing a soulful creativity to trainwreck-inspired Chinese-American food that China One’s one-note off-tasting fryer oil could never dream of achieving.

For many years, we’ve appreciated fried rice. We’ve tried it in hundreds of establishments, made it from scratch at home, and surfed the whole rainbow — from homey and wonderful down to essentially inedible. Fortune Wok managed to stake out a new low point on our spectrum, offering up a mealy pile of off-flavor, mushy, broken rice. We’ve had bad fried rice before, but never like this.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Similarly innovative was the Chicken Chow Mein ($7 for a dinner with off-kilter, sour-creamy crab rangoons.) Collectively, we were puzzled by this rendition, which seemed to combine a sweet and sour sauce with some kind of unexpected but off-putting spice mixture to create a dish so unpleasant that everyone in our group stopped after a half bite.

The General Tso’s ($9) seemed to be nothing but breading, but we didn’t thoroughly explore many of the chunks. It was one-dimensional and nothing but sugar.

And our egg roll tasted like past-ripe cabbage. Surprisingly, this was not to be our least favorite egg roll of the evening. — J.N.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Tracks Bar and Grill
1964 University Ave W, St. Paul
Fairview Avenue Station

Tracks is a bar and restaurant attached to a Days Inn. So it draws a random assortment of characters. From people who just needed a cheap room for the night to straight-up regulars who come in nightly.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

The aesthetic is more dive than hotel lounge. Just inside the door, there was a pay-phone bay with the phone ripped out and the line dangling from the wall. Our table had knife marks in it that made it look like someone had been playing a drunken game of five finger fillet. Neon beer signs were one of the primary sources of light.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

The brass rail that runs around the perimeter of the bar is mounted with ornamental brass horse heads. We wondered if at some point the theme of the bar might have been horse racing (thus the name Tracks), but nothing else gave that impression. Certainly not the fish tank.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Perhaps it’s the transient nature of a hotel bar, but nothing about it felt congruous. As proof, we offer the food specials of the night: tacos and kung pao chicken. — M.C.

*** FOOD NOTES ***

Tracks, which is now serving “Asian-American Cuisine,” served our least favorite egg roll of the evening. We were all in agreement that what it tasted most like was a spent cigarette. The tobacco flavor was assertive to the point of being legitimately interesting, but it was ultimately not our thing. And likely not anyone else’s, either.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Kung Pao Chicken ($8) that it accompanied, by contrast, was really not too bad. It was underflavored (missing the pow, really) and unremarkable, but the flavors of the chicken, vegetables, and water chestnuts were relatively unmuddled and decent. Choosing this over the food at Fortune Wok or China One would be a no-brainer.

Our hard, soft, and fried tacos ($1 each on Taco Tuesday) were thoroughly American, which is to say mostly underseasoned ground beef and lettuce. Still, for a buck each they weren’t too dear, and they were fine complements to the domestic beers that we ordered. The best of the tacos was the classic, “Si, Ortega!”-esque hard taco; our least favorite was the fried taco, which mostly just tasted doughy. — J.N.

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WACSO and M.C.Cronin

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5 Comments

  1. SteveinMN 07/27/2016 Reply

    On behalf of your readership, thank you for taking a few bullets for the team!

  2. simeon 07/27/2016 Reply

    As a resident of his neighborhood, this is a brutal stretch, besides On’s. I’ve been to them exactly one time each. But, too bad you didn’t get to check out Fasika (okay, it’s 1 block away from Uni, but really not farther from the Green line than fortune wok..) or that Russian place that’s only open like 2 hours a week.

  3. Bill Siegel 07/29/2016 Reply

    You guys should move up snelling just a couple blocks to check out fasika and sole cafe, they’re both great!

  4. I honestly think you should have tried the Pad Thai or Sesame Chicken at Tracks. Both are phenomenal!! I eat there quite regularly and it’s my first go-to for Asian food. I’d say give it another shot…

  5. It’s a bummer that the Russian Tea House is open so sporadically…would have been a welcome contrast on this list between sad catfish and sadder fried rice.

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