Greenline Checklist: Mesa Pizza to Stub and Herb’s
The University of Minnesota’s influence is readily apparent on this stretch. You’ve got a couple of places to party: Bar Luchador and Stub and Herbs. You’ve got a couple of places to grab late-night eats after the party: Hong Kong Noodles (open until midnight or 2 a.m. in the spring) and Mesa Pizza (open until 3 a.m.). And you’ve got a place to discuss Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle with your study group the next morning while pretending not to be hung over from the party: Sencha Tea.
And the circle of college life continues. — 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.
1323 4th St SE, Minneapolis
Stadium Village Station
It’s not much more than a big open space designed for ordering slices and chowing them down on site. But that’s OK. There’s no pretense here. Mesa knows their primary reason for existence, and they’re delivering on it.
You get in line, wind your way to the counter, order, pay, sit, fold your slice, tilt your head, take a bite, and instantly scorch off the first layer of skin on the roof of your mouth. It’s Darwin’s First Law of Pizza.
There’s what looks like a huge, illuminated spiraling flame design on the ceiling. We’re not exactly sure of the artist’s intention, but we like to imagine it’s an homage to that roof of the mouth burn. After all, when you’re a mecca for drunken college students who want little more than to stuff their faces and stumble home with sauce smeared on their cheeks, you kind of have to have a sense of humor.
And all credit to Mesa. They know how to have fun. From the tip jar soliciting donations to “help fund alcohol research” to the irreverent pizza stylings like the Mac-and-Cheese Pizza and the Cheesy Potato Pizza, Mesa knows a slice joint shouldn’t take itself too seriously. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Everything about this place — the decor, the location, the pricing — leads you to underestimate the experience. This isn’t to claim that Mesa is making great pizza in an underwhelming space, but it’s definitely good pizza in an underwhelming space, and that’s something worth celebrating.
The specialty slices we bought were $4 each. The Macaroni and Cheese slice (a quirky take on pizza that Mesa is locally known for) was remarkably tasty, considering it was carbs on carbs. The rich, creamy nature of the mac and cheese’s sauce complemented the crispy, foldable crust and delicate (but not overcooked) noodles. Breading the macaroni or baking it to the point of crisping or burning would have been bad moves — Mesa makes neither of these mistakes.
The Gyro slice we tried was even better. The tzatziki sauce was creamy and full-flavored, and while the shaved meat was a bit dry, the sauce made it work. Tomatoes brought some brightness and moisture to the party, and everything tasted in balance when combined with the restaurant’s pleasant, NYC street-slice-style pizza crust.
The value prospect is solid, too — $8 buys two slices, and two slices would be a good-sized meal for most averagely hungry people. — James Norton
Hong Kong Noodle
901 Washington Ave SE, Minneapolis
Prospect Park Station
There was a woman at one of the tables separating greens out of an enormous produce box. This wasn’t the first time we’d seen this. But this time, we got the scoop. Apparently these were pea shoots. After explaining what they were, she strongly suggested we try them. And we were glad she did.
The space consists of two rooms. The main dining area is nothing more than a bunch of tables and chairs. It’s all function. No barriers to break up the flow. No booths. Just a working space for sitting, ordering, and eating. Then, there’s a small atrium room with a few additional tables. The sun was down by the time we arrived, but it seemed like it would be a nice bright spot to sit for lunch.
Our server was friendly and helpful, which lead us to take her up on a number of her menu suggestions — probably too many. Our increasingly desperate attempts to make room at our table as plate after plate arrived resembled a classic slapstick comedy routine. We’d move glasses and silverware to the teetering edges of the table, and just barely fit a dish down, when seconds later another would arrive, and we’d go about rearranging the table again.
We may have ordered too much, but we were not complaining. That’s why they make takeout containers. And we were more than happy to make room in our fridges for our leftover-filled plastic bags with the happy faces on them. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Coming off of the high that was last edition’s visit to Tea House, we weren’t sure that other Chinese-American restaurants could measure up. And yet, here comes Hong Kong Noodle — less refined than Tea House, but more earthily satisfying, and a worthy contender for best Chinese food of our journey.
Our Beef Chow Fun ($14) was surprisingly (and delightfully) smoky. The noodles were tender and had a great umami, and their texture complemented the yielding pieces of beef and contrasted with the dish’s light, crunchy bean sprouts.
Even better was the Chicken in Black Bean Sauce with Pan Fried Noodles ($13). Black bean sauce can, and usually does, go wrong in many ways — too salty, too earthy, too dominant to the point of crushing whatever it’s spread upon. In this chicken dish, the sauce contributed a lovely amount of salt and umami while being part of an overall package best described as clean and balanced.
The fried noodles in this dish were fascinating, varying between crunchy and delicately chewy, and — without fail — soaking up the surrounding flavor to the point where they were as rich as their companion ingredients. One important footnote: The pieces of what appear to be green bell peppers floating in this dish are in fact pieces of fully seed-bearing jalapeño peppers, and should be consumed with great caution, if at all.
Our Hot Tea Hong Kong Style was fascinating — a super strong, arguably overbrewed tea brought into lovely balance by an application of milk and sugar. We’d get this again in a heartbeat.
Our Salt and Pepper Quail ($8) were the same sort of morbid “Oh, man, we’re eating tiny birds” spectacle that we’d come to expect since dining at Basha. But they were nicely prepared, with a distinctly cinnamon-kicked spice rub.
And the Pea Tips (possibly a special of the night — we ordered them because they were being prepped at an otherwise empty table in the restaurant) were stellar. Buttery, garlicky and gentle, this preparation put the bright, light taste of the vegetables first. — J.N.
Sencha Tea Bar
825 Washington Ave SE, Minneapolis
Stadium Village Station
Windows decorated with Japanese-influenced illustrations of floral blooms and plant leaves, and tea bubbles hand-painted in bright pinks and whites and blacks, lead you into the front door. So yes, the entrance sets the right mood for a tea bar.
Inside, the space is open and bright, with a high, exposed ceiling painted white. Simple cylindrical pendant lights drop down from above. Boldly colored pop art adorns the walls.
A halo of round stainless and copper containers hovers on a circular shelf above the main bar. These containers are filled with an impossibly large selection of loose leaf teas. Thankfully, Sencha offers a few daily selections marked with flavor profiles along with relative caffeine and antioxidant ratings. Otherwise, you’re on your own. The world of tea is your oyster.
Here’s how it works at Sencha. You build your own drink starting with one of the suggested tea drink bases (such as a latte, shake or cooler) to which you can add your own flavor shots (such as guava, cantaloupe or taro) and bubbles (such as aloe, lychee, or freshly made tapioca pearls). If it sounds complicated just choose one of the Signature Tea drinks or ask the friendly, helpful tearistas (barteastas?), and you’ll be fine.
The rest is pretty straightforward. Like a good coffee shop, the space is equally well suited for hanging out and chatting with friends or clacking out a master’s thesis on your laptop while listening to EDM. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We’ll always remember our visit to Sencha Tea Bar. It’s where we first tried tapioca pearls that tasted light, tender, and fresh. We’ve gotten so grudgingly accustomed to dense, tough, stale-tasting pearls at various Vietnamese restaurants on Nicollet Avenue and University Avenue that we didn’t really realize that any other kind existed, but they really do. We really dug them in our Almond Shake ($4.50), where they added additional interest to an intensely almond-flavored and not overly sweet milk beverage.
Our iced Royal Tea Latte ($3.89) had an odd but pleasing chocolate finish that played surprisingly well with the flavors of milk and tea. Next time we’ll order it with tapioca pearls and it’ll be perfect.
And our hot Earl Grey tea with milk ($3.29) was less floral than we expected, dominated instead by an earthy finish after a brief rose-inflected start. Not what we’d planned on, but still good, regardless. — J.N.
Stadium Village Station
A 10-foot tall masked wrestler glares menacingly at you with his hands curled into claws ready to tear you to shreds. Across the room, another larger-than-life wrestler is brutally ripping the mask off his struggling opponent by the eye-sockets.
If you’re new to Bar Luchador, now might be a good time to pause for an educational digression. A luchador is someone who engages in the sport of lucha libre — or Mexican professional wrestling. The masks — and the attempted removal thereof — are an essential element of the whole experience. Thus the enormous murals and posters depicting images of masked wrestlers all over Bar Luchador.
The theme and the food combine into a perfect storm of atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate setting for scarfing down a plate of tacos and sucking down a margarita … or dos.
In addition to the wrestlers, the environment was enhanced with old-fashioned outdoor lights strung across the ceiling, B-movies playing on the TV, and a sound system blaring a vinyl edition of Supergrass’ essential album I Should Coco. And while these elements didn’t necessarily fit with the lucha libra theme, they just worked.
So in summary, if sipping a Negra Modelo while eating chips and guac, listening to classic Brit Pop, and watching Mothra — all under the gaze of a masked Mexican wrestler — is your thing, then Bar Luchador should enter immediately into your repertoire. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The first part of Bar Luchador is “bar,” so we put a couple of this establishment’s drinks through their paces — with mixed results. Our Cold Hard Coffee ($5), a blend of horchata, Blackeye cold press coffee, and Myers’s Rum, tasted mostly of ice and water. All the good bits that we were looking forward to — namely rum, coffee, and horchata — were largely or entirely missing in action.
That said, our Luchador Margarita ($7) wasn’t bad. While leaning a bit too hard on the sour mix and salt rim at the expense of tequila flavor and orange liqueur, this was no technicolor sugar and rail-sour disaster, and was ultimately quite citric and refreshing.
We ordered three tacos ($3.50 each or $9 for three), and they split the table. Some of us liked the toasted pineapple bits that defined the flavor of the Pastor Taco; some thought it extraneous and distracting. Some of us really enjoyed the cauliflower-meets-red-onion contrast of the Veggie Taco; some thought the overall package a bit dry. And some of us thought the Chicken Taco was too one-note, and others relished the heavy hit of chicken flavor. In summary: decent tacos overall, with legitimate street-taco inspiration at work.
Our Chips and Guacamole ($7) featured a guac that was a little too light on the avocado for some tasters’ liking and durable, soulful chips that came preseasoned with spice — a party foul, perhaps, but ultimately a win, when combined with the overly creamy and underseasoned guacamole. As a package, these worked, and were some of the better chips and guac we’ve encountered in a bar setting in quite a while. — J.N.
Stub and Herb’s
227 Oak St SE, Minneapolis
Stadium Village Station
For some reason, Stub & Herbs has always seemed a little “meh” from the outside. We’ve passed by many times, but have never felt compelled to go in. “Drinking and Eating Emporium” has always seemed like a dressed-up description for a bland college bar.
So walking in, we were surprised to find a depth of character we weren’t expecting. You’d think the classic cartoon drawing of Stub and Herb on the marquee would’ve been a hint. Or perhaps the fact that the place has been around since 1939 might’ve piqued our interest. But no, we were somehow too dense to see the potential until we walked through the door.
Make no mistake, Stub and Herbs is a gem of a bar. The wood is nicked, the finishes worn and chewed by years of use. The windows are etched with old-timey frosted-glass patterns. There are solid wood booths with intricately carved rosettes. There’s a brick wall, which likely used to be the exterior wall of the building, that’s painted with another illustration of Stub and Herb. The bar in the center of the main room is trimmed in wood and brass, and patterned copper edging.
Sure, the antique pendant lights were turned up way too high. (After a certain hour, absolutely no one should be that well lit in a bar.) And you’d be well advised to just skip the basement tour altogether. But otherwise this is a solid bar with a classic feel. There’s a reason it’s a staple of the U of M scene. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The food at Stub and Herb’s turned out to be unexpectedly complex. Our Smokestack Burger ($9.50) was recommended by our waitress, and it possessed a handmade patty that we thought was tasty and legit. This quality meat was unfortunately cocooned in an oversweet barbecue sauce, an underflavored piece of melted cheese, and an extraneous layer of mayo on the overly assertive pretzel bun. A lot of elements that could have made a good burger were present. It just needed a bit of editing and refinement to shine.
Our order of Fish and Chips ($11) was noteworthy for a few reasons. One, the fish was clearly real fish, not a reconstituted paste. The flesh was firm, if a bit watery in the very center of each filet. Two, the tartar sauce was creamy and deeply flavored, with that egg-based richness that denotes a real mayo. Three, the chips — the fries, that is — were excellent. Perfect seasoning, great potato flavor, just the right balance of crunch and tenderness. Some tasters thought the assertively and properly seasoned breading a bit too dense. It was a heavy, almost pancake-like coating, not the crunchy, light, almost fuzzy batter that some diners prefer. — J.N.