Green Line Checklist: T-Rex to Campus Club, the End of the Line
Editor’s note: This marks the conclusion of the Green Line Checklist. We’d like to thank the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative for making the Checklist possible, all of our guest tasters for keeping us company, and the restaurateurs of the Green Line for making our cities so livable and intriguing. Heavy Table will be off for Thanksgiving and the day following.
A fizzle is not necessarily how you want things to come to an end when you’re finishing out an almost 10-month, 72-restaurant, seven-mile crosstown journey, but in a way, it’s appropriate.
There’s nothing glamorous about working through the Green Line Checklist. Eating at five restaurants in a single night can be a grind. You learn to take what University Avenue gives you and make do. You learn to take the long view.
Maybe for every bad meal you eat, you also get to discover a gem of a dish at a dive you may never have visited otherwise. Maybe for every grumpy server you encounter, you also get to meet an incredible person you never would have run across in any other part of your life.
In a way, these checklists mimic our daily existence.
Yes, occasionally, you get a fizzle. But life can’t give you a grand finale every day.
Perhaps the right approach is the same one the hardworking people running these establishments take to going about their jobs. Put your head down, put your heart into it, and just keep moving. — M.C. Cronin
Five Flavors We’ll Return For
5. Kung Pao Chicken at Tea House
We were skeptical when our server recommended we try the Kung Pao Chicken, generally a standard issue member of the dull-food lineup of dishes at Chinese-American restaurants. But the version at Tea House is packed with Szechuan peppercorns and has a tingly, powerful kick. It’s also not drenched in sweet syrup, and it leans far more heavily on the flavors of spice and peanuts to express itself. It’s among the best in town.
4. Ho-Muk at On’s Kitchen
Ho-muk is an exquisitely rich, creamy fish curry that’s almost pastelike in texture and contains layers of powerful flavor. It’s a great entree at Cheng Heng. And it’s an exquisite, perfectly sized appetizer over at On’s Kitchen Thai Cuisine. This isn’t a dish you’ll run into much (if ever) off University Avenue, so it’s worth looking for.
3. Meat Combo Platter at Flamingo
This is camaraderie and fellowship on a plate — heaping portions of rich, hot, colorful, deeply spiced East African flavors, there for the taking with a handful of injera. One of the happiest dining experiences of the many we had during our tour.
2. Enchiladas Verdes at Homi
Our original words stand to describe the appeal of these amazing items:
“Great kick, good acid to balance the richness, tender but not soggy tortillas, properly cooked meat, with an overall lovely, complex, lingering heat. This is a dish that can get heavy and tedious, even when done fairly well, but none of us got tired of this rendition, and we promise to return for more in the future.”
1. The River Monster at Thai Garden
Visual impact: stunning. Texture: fork tender. Flavor: Deep and bold. That’s the River Monster, a whole red snapper swimming in a sea of tom yum soup. There’s nothing like a flashy, novelty dish that delivers in the flavor department — it makes an indelible impression. — James Norton
How to Successfully Eat at Five Restaurants in One Night: A Scientific Analysis of Competing Theories
The Small Bites Theory — Hypothesis: Strictly limiting yourself to one or two bites from each dish all night will keep you from writhing around in bed, wishing you could drown in a sweet, pink vat of Pepto-Bismol. Conclusion: You’ll still be incredibly full, and you’ll probably just lie there writhing around, anyway, thinking how you might as well have eaten more of the one or two dishes you loved.
The Starvation Theory — Hypothesis: Keeping your stomach as empty as possible by not eating all day will allow more room in your system for the vast quantities of food you must consume. Conclusion: Your massive hunger will become your worst enemy. To quell the beast, you will find yourself stuffing anything down your gullet whether you like the taste or not, and by restaurant number three, you’ll wish you had worn elastic-banded pants.
The If You Find Something Good, Eat As Much As You Want, Because You May Not Get Anything Better Tonight Theory — Hypothesis: If you find something incredibly yummy to eat, go for it, because odds are you’re not going to like anything else you eat tonight. Conclusion: Gambling with your appetite is not advised. If every restaurant that night offers incredible food, the gamble may end with your re-enacting the Wafer-Thin Mint scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
The There’s No Right Way to Do This Theory — Hypothesis: Buckle down and dig in because there’s just no way to “succeed” at eating at five restaurants in a single night. Conclusion: Now you’re talking. Just go for it. — M.C.
Selected Photos by Becca Dilley
Late Night | Ngon Bistro
We all brought our own skills to University and Washington Avenues. Robb was our artist, but he was also our master raconteur, charming stories out of nearly everyone he met. This is Robb talking with Ngon Bistro’s owner, Hai Truong.
Ducks | Tai Hoa
The guy who chopped up our duck at Tai Hoa did so with skill and determination. There’s a certain power inherent in any butcher shop, and it certainly was present here.
Pho | Pho Ca Dao
This is Peter Hajinian making his way into one of the monster bowls of pho from Pho Ca Dao. The soup looks like some kind of otherworldly element here, being pulled into strange shapes by the power of the chopsticks.
Train | University Avenue
We drove, we walked, we didn’t take the train. But it was always there — our inspiration, our highway, and often our companion.
River Monster | Thai Garden
More than any other dish, the River Monster captured what we were after on this trip. We caught it, and it caught us.
Double-Fisted | iPho
James Norton applying a couple condiments to a broken rice plate in the most efficient manner possible. At our best on this trip, we were gung ho and waist-deep, and this image captures that spirit pretty directly.
Focus | Pho Ca Dao
Robb is so focused on his pho that its image is emblazoned on his glasses.
Bar Food | Johnny Baby’s
We didn’t know what to expect at Johnny Baby’s, but we certainly were glad to see this.
Relief | Los Ocampo
After our soul-numbing trip to a Chinese restaurant we’ll leave nameless for now, we all needed some immediate relief. This is Mike after imbibing deeply and happily of a margarita at Los Ocampo.
Advantage | Golden Gate
This fortune cookie more skillfully explained what we were up to than we could have managed ourselves.
Five Other Memorable Flavor Experiences
5. Sisig from Pinoy Fusion
We didn’t know what we were getting into when we ordered the Sisig from the Pinoy Fusion truck, and had we known, we might not have proceeded. Sisig is a platter of pig face (snout, cheeks, and / or ears) fried up with other bits that often include pork skin, chicken liver, and chicken hearts. It was chewy as the dickens and boldly funky, and while it wasn’t our cup of tea, it was a dish with real integrity that would no doubt make those who grew up with it quite happy indeed.
4. Fried Catfish at Johnny Baby’s
Fried catfish doesn’t get any simpler than the stuff we got from the back room at Johnny Baby’s — just fillets breaded and fried, with little in the way of additional spice or seasoning. But the fish tasted stunningly legit (real depth of flavor, not generic mystery white fish), and it shone through with little adornment.
3. Corn and Pear “Pizza” at Little Szechuan
Bits of pear. Whole kernels of corn. Rainbow sprinkles. Put them together, and you’ve got a yellow disk of utterly baffling mystery. We wouldn’t necessarily order it again, but we’ll be talking about it for years.
2. Pig Uteri at Destiny Cafe
In flavor, these slightly springy, noodle-like ribbons of pork weren’t too dramatic, but there’s something about pushing the button on an order of uteri that gives an evening a jolt of drama.
1. Papaya Salad at 88 Oriental Foods
So, so spicy. So, so funky. The thing that I ultimately loved most about University Avenue was that its flavor was full-throttle, and this papaya salad embodied that attitude to a T. — J.N.
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’ve published five-restaurant installments, usually biweekly, until we finished documenting every nonchain spot between the University Avenue and Rice Street intersection in St. Paul and the Green Line terminus on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis.
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 has been warts-and-all.
T-Rex Cookie Cafe
3338 University Ave SE, Minneapolis
The name T-Rex Cookie might lead you to expect a cafe serving super-sized platters of golden-baked, sweet batter. And you’d be right. You might also expect a few drink offerings, like coffee or tea, to wash down those enormous disks. And you’d be right again. And the name T-Rex Cookie might also lead you to expect to be able to order a big bowl of coconut chicken curry, right?
OK, maybe not, but that’s exactly what we found at this enigma of an eatery.
T-Rex may offer an odd assortment of menu items for a joint that leads with cookie in the title, but it delivers pretty well on what boils down to a comfortable coffee shop environment.
The space has an unearthed warehouse feel — all worn bricks and plank floors and high ceilings. It probably helps the overall vibe that Art & Architecture is right next door. Vintage furniture, fixtures, and decor are sprinkled throughout the lobby, and a few find their way into the cookie … uh … coffee … uh … curry shop, as well. Along with a wall-mounted T-Rex, of course. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
With all due respect to cookie shops, the name and concept set a low culinary bar. You’re not necessarily expecting to dine on anything more elevated than a large, probably rather dry chocolate chip cookie.
To its credit, T-Rex kicks things up to a higher notch. Our peanut butter cookie was a classic example of the form, with an almost molasses-cookie-like chewiness that we all welcomed.
Our caramel Oreo cookie was similarly tasty, with a good solid Oreo crunch throughout and a pronounced caramel finish.
We were pleasantly surprised to find real food on the menu, too. The Coconut Chicken Curry (shredded chicken thighs with a coconut-lemongrass curry sauce with potatoes, carrots and bamboo shoots over rice) wasn’t the finest example of a rice bowl that we’ve encountered, as it was a bit mushy and uniform. But the flavors were pleasant, and it tasted house made, and it was ultimately both fortifying and satisfying.
The Polish-Style White Borscht we ordered was also decent. It brought together kielbasa, bacon, potatoes, and leeks in a winter-friendly, hearty soup.
The only thing we’d pick a bone with was the Apple Chaider ($3.50), a mixture of milky chai tea and hot apple cider that sort of straddled both categories without really inhabiting either. Not a disaster, but next time we’ll swerve to one side of the divide or the other. — J.N.
700 Washington Ave SE, Minneapolis
East Bank Station
An oversized statue of the bar’s mascot, Sally, greeted us near the front door. Sally is a gopher with golden pigtails wearing a cowboy hat and a scant maroon and gold cheerleader outfit. In other words she’s a “SEXY GOPHER!” as the one female in our group exclaimed.
So at least we knew what we were getting into.
Picture a collegiate sports bar with a mild Western theme occupying the street level of a newish mixed-use development on the edge of campus. That’s Sally’s Saloon. There are new faux(?) wood floors and brick walls and TV’s galore — each flat screen glowing with a sporting event or sports talk show of some kind. You’ve got your tall bar stools and long, solid bar counters with plenty of elbow room. You’ve got your neon beer signs and custom keg light fixtures hanging from the ceiling.
This isn’t your cozy corner bar. It’s a sports-watching warehouse. A wide-open range for college sports fans to keep one eye on the game while they wander free among friends, with sloshing pint glasses, plucking nachos off each other’s plates.
Do they have drink and appetizer specials? Oh, yes. Yes, they do. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The Wednesday night special at Sally’s, a $3 Angus Burger, may well be the best burger bargain in the metro area. Was it a great burger? No. Was it a good burger? Arguably, depending upon your tastes and preferences. Was it $3 worth of burger? No, it was $5 — possibly $6 or even $7 — worth of burger, making it ludicrously affordable. The burger is reasonably large. Ours was properly cooked to medium rare, and the charring on the patty was palpable and enjoyable. And even though our onions came raw (not fried, as we ordered them) the whole thing was pretty decent, when topped with a little ketchup and mustard to distract from the overall dryness of the situation. This is a Wednesday night must-do if you’re in the area.
Our $11 Kobe Beef Philly (why would you ever use Kobe beef in a cheesesteak? does Kobe beef even mean anything anymore, as a term?) was a bit less of a bargain. It did have some of that soft, yielding and comfortable meeting of meat, liquid cheese, and tender bun, and it sported a nice heat. But it tasted like $8 worth of sandwich to us. You can get other Phillies in the area (try Peppers and Fries in Longfellow, for example) that offer more substance for less money.
We’re not sure what Sally’s Famous Chili ($5) is supposed to be famous for, but we do feel that “infamous” might be a better way to sum it up. Another way might be to say it was not unlike eating plain tomato soup with some chili-like glop spooned into the middle. A good chili has depth of flavor and some texture. This had nothing we could hang on to.
Our Wisconsin Jalapeño Cheese Curds ($8) were a bit underflavored (particularly considering the promise of heat inherent in the name) and forgettable, but not a bad accompaniment to whatever beer you might happen to be sucking down at the time. — M.C.
The Campus Club
Coffman Memorial Union, Minneapolis
East Bank Station
In the lobby of Coffman Memorial Union, there were pictures of the infamous Twin Cities rockers, The Replacements, posing in the very elevators we were waiting for to take up to the Campus Club. We had been invited to give a presentation on our journey down the Green Line. So seeing pictures of the Replacements — who weren’t exactly known for their reverence of the educational system (their song “F**k School,” for example) — served as a good reminder of the varied people who have been allowed to walk the halls of this university. From renowned scholars to prankster punk rockers to imprudent food documentarians, all are welcome here.
The Campus Club inhabits the entire fourth floor of Coffman Memorial Union. There are meeting rooms and event spaces available to any graduate, faculty, staff, or student who pays the annual fee. They even have the only bar on the University of Minnesota campus — where we promptly stopped and ordered a drink before moving on to our presentation in the main dining room next door.
As far as banquet rooms go, it’s nice enough. Comfy seats and big round tables. A bank of tall windows wraps around the space and provides a nice view of downtown Minneapolis.
To our surprise, each table was graced with a small menu specially created by the chef and inspired by the cultures and foods we encountered along the Green Line — borscht, sambusas, falafel, banh mi.
There were special cocktails, as well. The Russian Caravan, inspired by our visit to the Russian Tea House, was especially tasty and just what the doctor ordered to prepare us for winging it … er confidently delivering a well-thought-out presentation. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
I wish that I had better notes on the food that Chef Beth Jones of the Campus Club created for our Green Line Checklist finale reception, because it was:
b) Creative and
c) Reflective of the whole journey we’ve taken through more than 70 independent restaurants along University and Washington Avenues.
But I was so caught up in telling stories of our trip that I didn’t even think to take notes.
There was a full-flavored, rich, beautiful borscht. There were insanely crisp, delicate sambusas. There were crisp, skillfully plated balls of falafel. And there was a banh mi that I had the presence of mind to write about the next day:
“The banh mi was an ideal textural blend of slightly crispy baguette, pickled veg, and some of the richest, creamiest pate we’ve had on a sandwich — ever.”
It’s impossible for us to be objective about the Campus Club because it was a bit of an emotional moment for our team, but we’ll back for more food (and perhaps cocktails) down the road. — J.N.